The movement of migrants is not just one way. As people arrive, others are leaving. This gives us net migration figures which for most years since 1840 have actually been negative. Geographer Danny Dorling notes that before the economic crash, the number of migrants coming to Britain was roughly balanced with the number leaving. In total, ‘there are 10-14 million people who live here that were not born here – and there are 10-14 million people born here who no longer live here’. So not really a flood at all.
It is also worth viewing Britain’s migration figures in a global context. This shows that our experience of international migration is not at all remarkable, growing in line with world migration. Migrants make up 9 per cent of the population, which is the average for Europe. Britain has a smaller proportion of migrants and lower rates of net immigration than the US, Canada, Australia and several large European countries.
The number of asylum seekers that Britain receives is again average for Europe, ranking 14th out of 27 when looking at asylum seekers per head of population. The UK receives fewer asylum applications than France, Germany, Italy, Sweden and Belgium. As of January 2012, the UN estimated that the number of refugees, pending asylum cases and stateless persons made up just 0.33 per cent of the population. In fact, it is the so-called developing world that receives the majority of refugees, with 80 per cent being hosted there.
The past decade has seen higher net numbers of migrants. However, rather than being ‘unsustainable’, this migration is actually vital for the functioning of our society. Danny Dorling argues that the real problem is actually too little immigration. With a rising elderly population and decreasing fertility rates, we will depend even more than we already do on immigration to provide tax revenues and services.
Successive governments have been making the asylum process increasingly tough for asylum seekers despite their duty under the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees to provide protection to those fleeing persecution. The system is particularly hostile to women as UK Border Agency officials often lack an understanding of gender-based persecution.
A recent report by Oxfam stated that all aspects of the asylum system are flawed and that the entire process should be urgently reviewed. The fast-track system does not give the time needed for asylum seekers to make their case; this and many other issues with the asylum determination process means that often people are wrongly denied asylum. With devastating cuts to legal aid, this situation will only get worse as asylum seekers cannot access the legal advice and support that they need.
When an asylum seeker reaches the UK they are photographed and have their fingerprints taken, they are security checked and issued with an ID card. They are then required to report at regular intervals to immigration reporting centres. They are issued with a letter that informs them that they can be detained at any point during the asylum process.
EU citizens have free movement across Europe under European law – although home secretary Theresa May has been drawing up plans to curb intra-EU migration. But the rules governing the entry of non-EU immigrants are incredibly stringent, with a points-based system that requires people to show documents such as their bank statements and exam results.
It is during detention where, far from being a ‘soft touch’, the reality for immigrants and asylum seekers is often a hard fist. Medical Justice has documented hundreds of cases of abuse of detainees at the hands of security guards during detention and deportation. Each year, 1,000 children are detained with their parents.
Research commissioned by the Home Office concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that asylum seekers had detailed knowledge about the UK benefits system. When someone is fleeing from persecution, they often do not know where their end destination will be; some may choose the UK because they have friends and family here.
Asylum seekers anyway do not have access to the mainstream benefit system. Rather, they have a parallel system of welfare support that provides them with £36.62 a week, 52 per cent of Jobseeker’s Allowance. Surviving on £5.23 a day puts asylum seekers well below the UK poverty line. Those who are refused asylum but are too scared to return home find themselves destitute as they cannot access any benefits. Oxfam estimates that there are hundreds of thousands of destitute asylum seekers in the UK.
Asylum seekers do not have access to social or council housing. They are allocated housing on a ‘no choice’ basis in ‘hard to let’ properties. This housing is often of very poor quality. This is likely to get even worse with the privatisation of asylum housing through G4S, Serco and Reliance – all of whom have poor records in managing detention centres and transport and escort services. Indeed, there are already concerns that G4S will repeat its Olympics shambles in asylum seeker housing, leading top officials in the Home Office to monitor the situation closely.
Migrants most often come here to work and they do just that. Many have high skill levels but often find themselves in jobs that do not utilise these skills and are poorly paid. National insurance data shows that foreign nationals are less than half as likely to claim unemployment benefits as UK citizens. Access to benefits for migrants is complex, and as with access to welfare for asylum seekers has become increasingly limited since the mid-1990s.
Research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission dispels the myth that immigrants jump the social housing waiting list. This found that 60 per cent were privately renting, 18 per cent were owner occupiers, and only 11 per cent were allocated social housing. The research found no evidence of abuse of the system nor of ‘queue jumping’.
Asylum seekers are not allowed to work, despite often being highly skilled and keen to use these skills. Once their claim has been decided they may work if they have been given refugee status. However, they face many barriers to entering employment. The government has cut the Refugee Integration and Employment Service, which provided them with support in finding a job. Refugees may also struggle to work in their chosen profession as their qualifications may not be transferable or they may face discrimination by employers.
Migrants generally travel to where there are jobs available, often filling vacancies where there are skill shortages. The UK Border Agency’s points-based system for non-EU immigrants means that they are only permitted to take jobs where there are recognised skill shortages and if they can prove before entering that they have the relevant qualifications. Numerous statistical studies have shown that there is no link between EU immigration and unemployment levels.
It is our duty, not a drain, to protect asylum seekers. As discussed above, the welfare provision that we do provide is woefully inadequate. A number of other European countries provide more generous support than the UK.
The minimal provision the state provides for asylum seekers and refugees is now being decimated by government cuts with devastating consequences. There have been massive cuts to support services for asylum seekers and refugees and cuts to the Home Office housing budget for asylum seekers. The cuts to legal aid will affect asylum seekers’ ability to access justice in a system already stacked against them. Asylum seekers and refugees are being used as an easy target by the government. The Home Office has acknowledged this itself, stating: ‘Because the UKBA is not facing uniform cuts, some areas – including asylum – will be required to bear a greater proportion of the cuts.’
Besides, far from ‘draining’ public services, migrants (including refugees) actually contribute significantly to their funding through their tax and national insurance contributions. They make a net contribution to the UK economy of £3 billion. Because they are often young, healthy, and skilled, their use of public services is actually very limited. Migrants also help deliver many of our public services, working in the National Health Service, education and social care. It is a fact that the NHS could not function without migrant workers.
The myth of immigrants’ dependence has obscured the reality of our own dependence on them.