After five years of coalition government, the impact of tighter controls on immigration is beginning to register. In a global index of how committed countries are to integrating legal migrants, the UK has dropped out of the top 10.
In a climate of fiscal austerity, the UK has scaled back its commitment to integration in some key areas. Other countries have also gained ground in areas in which the UK continues to perform well. Germany has pulled ahead of the UK, Denmark has overtaken it and new entry Australia is ranked several points ahead.
The results should raise questions about what is being sacrificed in the pursuit of lower immigration numbers.
Citizenship and family migration
The 2010-2015 coalition government made a commitment to breaking the chain between arrival, settlement and naturalisation. Attempting to reduce net migration without damaging the economy, it significantly tightened the rules around family migration. Tougher income requirements were introduced, which meant less than half the British population would be eligible to bring a spouse to the UK.
The coalition government also used mechanisms designed by the previous government (including the Life in the UK test) to ensure those seeking settlement meet stringent requirements before winning the right to remain.
As a result of these restrictions, the UK now has the lowest score on family migration of any country in the index. That means fewer families are being reunited. On permanent residence, the UK scores far below the index average, again due to the toughness of eligibility and conditions.
When it comes to access to nationality, the UK has some of the most generous eligibility requirements for naturalisation (in terms of length of stay required before application) and the fullest rights for naturalised citizens. But it has some of the most restrictive conditions: a higher language and test bar, a vague “good character” requirement and the highest fees in the world.
The UK continues to naturalise the highest proportion of migrants in the index but the number fell for the first time in 2014 – by 40% to 125,755.
Education and work
Overall, the UK still scores well for education and for intercultural education – which shows UK schools are committed to building shared values and tolerance across cultures.
After more than a decade of migration-driven demographic change, schools in historical areas of migration have become increasingly diverse. Schools in formerly more homogeneous areas are experiencing the challenges and opportunities of diversity for the first time.
The coalition government gave schools more freedom over how they spend funding aimed at meeting these challenges. In areas of long-standing diversity, therefore, children from migrant backgrounds are performing better than ever.
But the ability to meet the needs of migrant and minority children is now extremely uneven between schools, especially in areas with less experience of diversity. This has led to a lower score for the UK in the index’s “new opportunities” category. This suggests that central government support and guidance might best be focused on areas in which schools are experiencing migration for the first time to ensure that specific needs of migrant children are addressed.
During the 2000s, English language support and training expanded massively, including for working migrants. This has been scaled back since 2011, to cut costs and to avoid subsidised English classes acting as a pull factor for economic migrants.
In particular, migrants in work now have less access to language support, potentially limiting their integration. Migrants are now increasingly polarised in the labour market – the less educated are most at risk from limited integration and in-work poverty, while the most educated are progressing and investing in their skills.
In all of these areas, the findings raise the question of how much integration should be prioritised. Is cutting net migration really the most important immigration goal, or are other priorities also important?
At a time of austerity, is integration a luxury that can be cut or would money be better spent keeping families together and enabling migrants to train? As the UK continues to see high numbers of migrants arriving, it should take these findings seriously and consider what it wants its immigration system to do.