Migrants' Rights Network

Some principles for a truly ‘open and honest’ discussion on migration

The UK Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee, a group of MPs tasked with scrutinising the work and expenditure of the Home Office, has published a report laying out what they believe the Government needs to do to achieve greater consensus and democratic support for immigration policy in the country. We take a look at the report, and analyse how its findings could really inform future immigration policy. 

by ELSPETH MACDONALD

The Immigration Policy: Basis for Building Consensus report, published yesterday, is an interesting read. It starts from a belief that the debate on immigration policy has become increasingly divisive in recent years, and in particular since the Brexit referendum. Importantly, it points out ways in which the government’s own policy choices and Home Office inadequacies have contributed to that division, in particular by undermining public confidence in the UK immigration system.

The report also lays out various steps the Committee feels the government should take to improve things. There’s a lot in there that MRN welcomes, in particular the calls for a more honest, open and evidence-based debate on migration, and a simplification of immigration law.

But there were also some suggestions that caught our attention for the wrong reasons… Here’s a few thoughts on why.

Targeting the target

Probably the most headline-grabbing part of the report was its recommendation to scrap the net migration target. The Committee makes the point that, far from helping the debate on immigration, the government’s target of reducing immigration to the “tens of thousands” is a crude, random, and unrealistic measure that actually reinforces fear and mistrust because it cannot be met.

This seems a fair assessment and MRN would welcome an end to the target. But the Committee suggested replacing it with… more targets. Admittedly, their idea to create “better” targets – evidence-based, publicly debated, with different figures set for different types of migration, and students and refugees removed from consideration.

But any policy that turns people into numbers runs the risk of dehumanising them, no matter how “good” the facts and figures. Rather than fixating on numbers, immigration policy should be guided first and foremost by the idea that migrants are also aspirational human beings, who will be looking for a better life, and they have rights that the government is duty-bound to respect and uphold.

A “differentiating” approach

The Committee also recommends the government adopt different targets and approaches for different types of migration. This is based on a view that, while overall the public overall wishes to see a reduction in immigration, their attitudes vary considerably depending on the type of migration in question – for example, economic migrants vs those seeking humanitarian protection.

The report argues that distinguishing better between types of migrant will allow the government to see more clearly where areas of consensus and agreement exist. And knowing this will in turn lead to more accepted and effective immigration policy decisions.

It goes without saying that MRN supports any moves to encourage a more nuanced and well-informed debate on migration. But drawing lines between different migrant groups always carries risks – something that the report failed to recognise. We already have a system whereby different migrants are treated differently, creating confusion and resentment. Out system is also already designed with limits in mind: for example, only 20,700 skilled workers can be sponsored per year, and they have to meet a points-based system. Equally, we already impose conditions on those who want to remain a family unit by requiring a minimum income threshold from the sponsor. Last but not least, we have made it harder for some students to gain employment in the UK once they have completed their studies.

The HASC report’s recommendations risk exacerbating the “good/bad immigrant” narrative, where certain people are deemed “worthy” of living in the UK, while others are branded as legitimate targets of hatred and discrimination. This narrative is something that MRN’s recent Annual Summits looked at in detail, and is very concerning.

So while explaining different types of migration makes some sense, it must be done carefully and must take place within a much wider discussion, which also emphasises the commonalities and rights that all migrants – and indeed UK citizens – share.

MRN Director Fizza Qureshi at the London Annual Summit, 30 November 2017.

“Integration” for whom?

The report looks at how the government can better address the impact of immigration on local communities. This includes a detailed discussion of how migrant communities can be encouraged to “integrate”, for example through more English language class provision or improved pathways to settlement.

Given the Committee’s calls elsewhere for a more “open and honest debate” about migration, it was disappointing not to see any acknowledgement of “integration” as a two-way process – with both sides benefitting as a result. This is particularly concerning considering the Committee calls for implementation of the recommendations in the Casey Review, one in which Louise Casey has openly stated that integration is not a ‘two-way street’.

There was also no mention of the critical importance of involving migrants themselves in decisions on community relations. Not only because any changes will affect them, but also because they make up these communities too. And as MRN has seen in its own projects, migrants themselves are almost always best placed to find sustainable, effective solutions to the problems they face.

As is too often the case, the voices of migrant communities seem to have been forgotten about in a policy-making process that profoundly affects them. Together we must keep fighting to ensure that these voices are front and centre in the debate. Only then will the UK really be able to say it has built a trusted and sustainable “consensus” on immigration policy.

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Fabien Cante

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