Next week we will debate the second reading of the immigration bill. This will be something like the 6th immigration bill that we have considered in my 14 years in Parliament and it is pretty much the same as all the others. UK Immigration bills are rough variations of two main themes and these are to stop as many people as possible from coming here and to make life as miserable as possible for those that might have made it. This time round the debate will be in the context of the refugee crisis but it is difficult to see that this will in any way temper the traditional themes and debating points to secure the bill’s main objectives.
We live in a globalised inter connected world where the movement of large populations has never been such a feature. International travel has never been easier and hundreds of thousands of people are continually on the move at any one time. It would be difficult to consider the world without this exchange of peoples and countries round the world have been enhanced with the arrival of new migrants. The UK is in fact an international globalised nation and we are a better nation because of that. Just look at London. One of the most successful international cities in the world, one third of the people who live and work in London were born beyond the UK. What has immigration done for us, eh? Immigration has enriched our communities and helped western democracies deal with some of their long term demographic challenges.
And populations have always been on the move. Europe was designed by mass migrations and Scotland is just your common and garden but complex ‘mongrel’ nation. Continents have been entirely re-designed by migration and we are only a few generations away from the completion of both anglo-phone America and its latin southern cousin. Conquerors, colonialists and imperialists, of course, never had any concerns about their immigrations. Immigration is only a issue when it feels like it ‘is being done to us’.
The contemporary political concern over ‘immigration’ quickly took off following the Caribbean immigrations of the 60s and it has raised in volume ever since. To accompany those concerns various attempts to control immigration have been deployed which the next immigration Bill is but one of a sequence. All have been almost total and abject failures and never had any real prospect of success. I remember betting the then immigration minister, Damien Green, a sum of his choice that even his ultra restrictive Government wouldn’t get immigration down to their tens of thousands. Under the Conservatives, and within ‘fortress UK’, immigration has gone up.
But stopping people moving is only one part of immigration policy. Its other intention is much more subtle and is possibly more successful than its primary purpose. That is its use as a political tool and lightening rod. Immigration is the classic political instrument for political ‘othering’. It can be used as the default reason for all sorts of political problems from poor housing, unemployment and pressures in the health services – as UKIP’s electoral success has demonstrated. There’s nothing quite like having a convenient group to blame for all societies ills and demonised immigrants don’t come any more ‘convenient’.
People are now more obviously and visibly on the move because of current global issues. The Syrian refugee crisis in particular has affected us in a way that no other recent migration has. The dramatic reporting of people fleeing from a bloody civil war has meant that we feel more engaged and determined to help especially when victims are being washed up on the beaches of Europe.
Compare that with others currently on the move just now, the so called ‘economic migrants’. This group do not quite effect the same pathos and this division of good and bad migrants is a feature of the evolving immigration debate. ‘Economic migrants’ as a political term is a relatively new innovation but as a phenomena it is as old as the hills. Economic migration is the main driver of all great historic migrations but it has now emerged as the migration that will now no longer be tolerated. We live in a world where there is an almost grotesque unequal sharing of global resources. Do we seriously believe that people in one half of the world with no or limited access to those resources are going to stay put while observing how the other half live? As we look to the future we can only conclude that even more people will be on the move.
At some point we are going to have to completely review our whole approach to immigration. If it’s more and more about keeping people out then considerably more resources will be required in what will have to be an increasingly militaristic endeavour. But how about addressing the unequal global division of wealth and look at the reasons why people decide to leave their country of birth? And let’s be creative. Enhancing border controls isn’t going to stop people from coming but having a fair system that rewards endeavour and matches ambition and skills just might.
In the meantime there is this immigration bill and after that there will be another immigration bill and more and more people will continue to be on the move.