The pointless migration numbers game does more harm than good

The washed-up belongings of people who drowned off the coast of Libya. Reuters/Hani Amara

The latest quarterly migration figures have been released by the Office for National Statistics in the UK. They show an increase in the rate of immigration to the country and a slight decrease in levels of emigration – but perhaps most importantly, they speak of a persistent gap between the government’s objectives and reality.

The data

The figures tell us that net migration (the number of people who’ve entered the country minus the number of people who’ve left) is estimated to have reached 330,000 in the 12 months leading up to March 2015. This is quite a bit higher than the 236,000 estimated for the previous year.

Around 636,000 people arrived in the UK and 307,000 left. Arrivals of people from European Union countries are estimated to have risen from 213,000 to 269,000, while arrivals of people originating from outside the EU (particularly from Commonwealth countries) also increased, from 261,000 to 284,000.

So why are people coming to the UK? The data shows that the majority come to work (estimated at 290,000) or study (188,000). Of those with or seeking a job, 59% were citizens of EU countries, with marked increases from Italy and Spain. This may reflect a strengthening of the British labour market, as the overall employment rate of EU citizens is similar to that of the British population; the employment rate among male EU citizens is even higher. The CBI’s director general also stated last year that EU migration is “essential for a healthy economy”.

Of those coming to study in the UK, 72% were non-EU citizens. These students are vital to the British higher education sector. In 2011-12, they accounted for nearly 20% of the output generated by universities and spent almost £4 billion just on fees and accommodation. In Sheffield international students contribute an estimated £120m to local GDP and in London there is a £2.3 billion contribution to the capital’s economy.

The politics

During the last election, the Conservative Party reiterated its “ambition” to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands. Immigration continues to be a leading concern for the British public, with opinion polling finding that half of the population consider it to be among the most important issues facing the country today. Since then, there have been attempts to make a move to the UK less appealing to migrants, whether through preventing them from accessing health, welfare or education services or going out and telling them that life here is pretty awful.

The latest figures suggest that these efforts don’t work. That shouldn’t be a surprise as it is very common for immigration policies to fail at meeting their declared objectives. International migration flows cannot be easily switched on or off. But by focusing incessantly on reducing the numbers, the government is doing more harm than good.

Operation Stack: as ye sow, so shall ye reap. Reuters/Neil Hall

Failing immigration policies reduce public confidence and trust in political leaders. Surveys over recent years have shown the British public to be consistently dissatisfied with the way that its governments have dealt with immigration. In particular, after the coalition government claimed it could drastically reduce immigration levels, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats both suffered from declining public confidence on the issue.

The truth

The focus on overall numbers also hides the real issues. Not everyone wants less immigration. Businesses often benefit from migrant labour, particularly in places such as the UK where there is an ageing workforce; universities benefit from foreign students and public coffers gain from tax contributions. It is also just as clear that not everyone benefits from immigration, but the impacts on services, jobs and communities vary according to local dynamics. As local government continues to face significant budget cuts its capacity to mitigate these impacts will surely diminish.

We are currently bombarded with images of camps and boats under the title of Europe’s “migration crisis”. David Cameron has talked of a “swarm” of migrants coming to Britain, threatening UK border staff along the way.

In nations such as the UK, migrants have a set of rights that are enshrined in international law and enable them to move, among them the right to leave a country and the right to seek international protection.

Yet in 2014, only 24,914 people applied for asylum in the UK and at the end of 2014 there were 117,161 refugees, 36,383 pending asylum cases and 16 stateless people. This is a small proportion of the 330,000 migrants arriving in 2014-15 and more than 8m foreign-born people living in the UK.

International migration is part and parcel of being integrated in today’s global economy. In this way, the latest figures reflect nothing so much as Britain’s enviable position: a vital member of the largest trading bloc on the planet, with a deep history of economic and political links with countries all around the world.

Political debates that focus only on getting the numbers down are unlikely to have a long-term view of how to best maximise the benefits and mitigate the negative impacts of migration, and may do more damage than good in the short-term.

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