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The migrant balance sheet

Immigration controls don't work. Rahila Gupta puts the economic case for a new approach: open borders

May 7, 2010
4 min read

The Labour government has been working hard to ensure that immigration policy, one of the staple undercurrents of a British election campaign, will not be an opposition trump card in this election. Two of the BNP’s central demands – to deport all illegal immigrants and all non-British criminals – have already been met by government policy. How much further can New Labour move to the right without being mistaken for the BNP?

The main space left for manoeuvre between the various parties is the number of skilled non-EU immigrants to be allowed to enter the UK under the points-based system. The BNP wants none; the Tories want a cap on the number who qualify. The Tories’ recognition that immigrants are vital to a competitive economy even in a recession represents a step forward from the attempted zero migration of the Thatcher years. It is time to develop an immigration policy that is honest about the benefits of immigration rather than the blow hot, blow cold response to right-wing pressure that we are accustomed to seeing from this government.

Most mainstream debate on immigration focuses on a ‘managed’ migration policy, with those on the left emphasising fairness and justice while the government’s emphasis falls on the ‘robustness’ and ‘integrity’ of the system. But we need to go further than that. We need to recognise that for as long as we have problems without borders – inequality, poverty and exploitation – people will not and cannot respect those borders. Migrants’ remittances, two to three times the size of international aid, play a significant role in reducing global inequality, and also keep the wheels of the British economy oiled.

If the borders were to be opened, it is a widely held belief that Britain would be inundated. However, this is not borne out by the trends. In general, migration follows jobs. With the recession, there has been a tailing off in numbers of those applying to come here. Open borders within Europe with a population of half a billion have not led to Britain being inundated, although much has been made of the Polish influx and some local difficulties with overstretched services. This has been due mainly to a lack of planning. The overall ease with which migrants have been accommodated in the UK is evidence of the need for workers.

Given the economic benefits to the country in terms of stimulating growth, adding to the pension and welfare funds of an ageing population, contributing more in taxes than taking out in benefits and not costing the UK in training, skilled migrants have no need to produce further arguments to justify their presence here. However, what I consider to be the clincher in this debate has not had the public airing that it deserves. Very little work, if any, has been done to quantify the economic gains made by Britain from trade, aid and other activities in the developing world that leads to the displacement of people from their traditional livelihoods and lands, set against the costs incurred by the government by the arrival of refugees and economic migrants here.

Recent reports on the ‘land-grab’ that is taking place in Africa by the international community, including Britain, in order to fulfil domestic demand for food and biofuels has led to a loss of land and livelihood for millions – some of whom, no doubt, will be knocking on our doors tomorrow. Not to trace a line between their hunger and our satiety is downright immoral.

We need to draw up a balance sheet that measures the number of jobs generated here and taxes paid by transnational companies to the treasury (even with their clever tax avoidance schemes) against the immigrants who turn up here. Given the complicated structure of transnational companies, unpicking the economic trail will be a resource-intensive job. That is why we need an equivalent of the Stern review on climate change to carry out this work. Such a review should look specifically at the impact of open borders as every other point on the spectrum of a managed immigration policy has been tried.

We should also consider a number of intermediate steps: an unconditional amnesty/regularisation for all undocumented migrants; the right to work for asylum seekers; and to make the immigration system compatible with the government’s international human rights commitments.

The movement of peoples is an irresistible fact of globalisation. Immigration controls do not work. As Teresa Hayter, writer and activist puts it ‘Controls are like a dam; when one hole is blocked, another appears somewhere else.’ The sooner we wake up to this fact and plan rationally for it, the better.

Rahila Gupta is a journalist and writer on immigration issues

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