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Dossier: Immigration

  • Written by  Mark Rowe
  • Published in UK
A migrant worker harvests and sorts celery A migrant worker harvests and sorts celery Si Barber/Bloomberg via Getty Images
01 Aug
The tabloids would have us believe that immigrants are taking our houses, our jobs, our school places and our hospital beds. But a close reading of the research reveals another, more nuanced story

The people have spoken, and what they’re saying – judging by the results of the European elections in May – is that the level of immigration into the UK is too high.

No issue, it seems, is as politicised as that of inward migration. UKIP’s recent campaign was built around posters that declared that 26 million people in Europe were looking for work, before asking: ‘And whose jobs are they after?’. The Conservative party has promised an in/out referendum on Europe for 2017 should they win the next election and pledged to reduce annual net immigration to below 100,000 by next year. Independent think tank Migration Watch UK has declared that ‘we must build a new home every seven minutes for new migrants’. And who can forget the Home Office’s mobile adverts last year declaring that illegal immigrants should ‘go home or face arrest’?

Given the heated nature of the political debate, it might come as a surprise to learn that research paints a rather more nuanced picture, one where migration is pretty much uniformly regarded as beneficial to the UK. Away from the political fireworks, the official policy of the UK’s Home Office is that ‘immigration enriches our culture and strengthens our economy and therefore we want to attract people to study, work and invest in the UK’. That, according to the general consensus of those who attempt to look at the debate dispassionately, is nearer to the mark.



According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the UK saw a statistically significant increase in net migration from 154,000 to 212,000 in the year to September 2013: 532,000 people arrived and 320,000 people left. Non-EU citizens accounted for 46 per cent of that immigration, EU citizens 39 per cent and British citizens 15 per cent. In all, 209,000 EU citizens migrated to the UK, the highest number on record, up from 149,000 in the previous year.

Why did they come? The ONS says that 176,000 of these migrants came to study, while work-related migrants totalled 218,000 – the highest number since 2008. Of these, 63 per cent (138,000) came with a definite job to go to and 37 per cent (80,000) came to look for work.

All of this adds to a historically high long-term trend: the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford found that the annual long-term inflow of EU citizens (excluding British citizens) for 2004–12 was around 170,000, compared to 67,000 during 1997–2003.

The rise in migration has been driven by the accession of eight countries to the EU in 2004 (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia, known collectively as the A8) and the associated freedom of movement for citizens of those countries. The 2011 census suggests that 2.7 million UK residents were born in other EU countries, and 41.7 per cent (1.1 million) of those were born in the A8 or Bulgaria and Romania. Polish-born residents in the UK totalled 654,010 in 2011 and Romanian-born 83,168.

According to the Migration Observatory, in the year to September 2013, twenty-four thousand Bulgarian and Romanian citizens migrated to the UK, a statistically significant increase of 15,000 when compared to the previous year. Around seven in ten (17,000) of the Bulgarian and Romanian citizens who moved to the UK that year did so for work-related reasons.

In May this year, the ONS reported that the number of Romanians and Bulgarians working in Britain had dropped since border controls on them were fully lifted in January, from 125,000 in December 2013 to 122,000 in March 2014.

In 2012, the government launched an audit of what the EU does and how it affects the UK. Known as the ‘Review of the Balance of Competences’, it was made up of 30 studies carried out by government departments, focusing in particular on trade and investment. It found that EU trade policy had benefited the UK economy, with the total value of exports increasing from £130billion to £240billion. However, the release of a section on the free movement of people has twice been delayed, amid reports of ministerial disagreements over its appraisal of the impact that it has had. A spokeswoman for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said that the section was now due to be published this summer.



And what of the impact on British jobs? The common refrain is that British workers lose out to migrants who are willing to take the same job for less pay. The ONS identified a clear increase in the number of A8 migrants employed in the UK between 2004 and 2008, by which time the total had stabilised at around 500,000. By 2011, this had risen to around 700,000 and as of autumn 2013 stood at 723,000.

According to the Migration Observatory, there’s still a significant gap in per capita income between the UK and the A8 countries. World Bank figures suggest that last year, the average income in the UK was US$38,670; in Poland, it was US$12,660, in Bulgaria and Romania, US$7,830 and in the other A8 countries, it was US$16,369. This income differential, the Migration Observatory argues, suggests that the incentive still exists for migration from Eastern Europe to the UK.

But do EU migrants take British jobs and force down wages? The answer is, for the most part, no. The labour force survey carried out by the ONS in March shows that British workers had taken more than 90 per cent of new jobs in the UK economy during the past 12 months.

However, according to a Migration Observatory report released that month, immigration has a small impact on the average wage of existing workers but more significant effects along the wage distribution – that is, low-wage workers lose, while medium- and high-paid workers gain. The report concluded that ‘research does not find
a significant impact of overall immigration on unemployment in the UK, but the evidence suggests that immigration from outside the EU could have a negative impact on the employment of UK-born workers, especially during an economic downturn’. It added that ‘any declines in the wages and employment of UK-born workers in the short run can be offset by rising wages and employment in the long run’.

‘There’s a broad view that the net impact on GDP is positive, but there’s disagreement on whether it may have an impact on low-income native workers,’ says Eric Kaufmann, professor of politics at Birkbeck College, University of London. ‘There are arguments that migration puts downward pressure on low-paid native workers’ incomes – or [conversely] that the economic dynamism of immigration creates more work for that demographic than it takes away.’

For Dimitris Ballas, senior lecturer in human geography at the University of Sheffield, the benefits far outweigh the negatives – across all parts of society. ‘Migration is a very positive thing,’ he says. ‘People come in, they bring in skills, they are educated, and educated at the expense of the taxpayer in their home country. That’s the case even with those who are unskilled. They get a job, pay National Insurance contributions, pay into pensions. In many cases, they are doing jobs that no-one else wants to do.’



The Migration Observatory report looked at several academic studies of UK migration and found that the effects on average wages fluctuate from negative to positive, but are relatively small. A 2013 study found that an increase in the number of migrants corresponding to one per cent of the UK-born working-age population resulted in an increase in average wages of 0.1 to 0.3 per cent. A similar study for the period 2000–07 found that a similar migration trend lowered the average wage by 0.3 per cent.

Another study reinforces the view that it’s the lowest-paid UK workers who can lose out. It found that the greatest wage effects were among low-waged workers. And that each one per cent increase in the share of migrants in the UK-born working age population leads not only to a 0.6 per cent decline in the wages of the five per cent lowest-paid workers and but also to an increase in the wages of higher paid workers.

However, it’s worth noting, says the Migration Observatory, that the available research shows that any adverse wage effects of immigration are likely to be greatest for resident workers who are themselves migrants. This is because the skills of new migrants are likely to be closer substitutes for the skills of migrants already employed in the UK, rather than for those of UK-born workers.

As for whether unemployed migrants are claiming benefits, in 2012, the National Institute of Social and Economic Research used National Insurance data to explore the impact of immigration on benefit claims in 379 local authorities in England. Their results suggested no impact of immigration on claimant numbers.



Meanwhile, the Migration Advisory Committee, an independent, non-statutory, non-departmental public body that advises the government on migration issues, looked at the impact of migrants on the employment of UK-born people using data from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) for 1975–2010. The study suggested that, overall, migrants have no impact on UK-born employment.

‘Migrants either complement or substitute the local labour force,’ says Scott Blinder, director of the Migration Observatory. ‘The extent to which they are complementary should, in theory, have a positive impact on jobs. The caveat is that it depends on assumptions that aren’t provable – short-term economic effects are usually pretty small. It’s easy to mistake a small positive for a zero, a small negative for a zero.

‘The usual answer is that migration has a small positive effect,’ he continues. ‘But it depends on who is the recipient. Migration adds to GDP; the tougher question is whether it increases per capita GDP and whether that extends to the migrants themselves or to people who are already here. To the extent that there is downward pressure
on wages, it seems to be concentrated on the lower wage part of the economy. There are gainers and losers.’

Low-skilled migration has both an upside and a downside, according to the Labour MP for Sheffield Central, Paul Blomfield, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration. ‘It did support speedy economic growth, but it has meant that employers have perhaps had a quick route to labour, which means that they haven’t invested in traineeships and apprenticeships in the way that they might have done. The sense of anger is a feeling that we’re gaining access to trained workers from countries that are at a lower stage of development than the UK, and perhaps that means lower wages. People who have those concerns aren’t far wrong.’

The solution, Blomfield argues, isn’t to point the finger at migration, but instead to create a level playing field. ‘We can have greater enforcement of the minimum and living wage, and address the issue of agencies that recruit exclusively from Eastern Europe and that cut out local labour altogether,’ he says.




So much for the empirical data. Unfortunately, what tends to happen is that such figures can be interpreted differently.

Migration Watch UK, which voices concern about the scale of immigration, concludes that ‘net migration quintupled from 50,000 in 1997 to 250,000 in 2010, and that nearly four million immigrants have arrived since 1997. A migrant arrives almost every minute, but they leave at only just over half that rate.’ In a report published in April, Migration Watch concluded that half of Eastern European migrants earn no more than £300 a week, so ‘a significant number are unlikely to be making any net contribution to the Treasury’.

‘Migration is different depending on the point of view – of the migrant, the receiving community, and national and local governments,’ says Blinder. ‘It’s a big deal. Migration is a feature of a much larger phenomenon – globalisation. It’s one of those things that circulate more freely across greater distances than it used to.’

And the ONS admits that it has made some historical under-estimates: the census-based 2011 mid-year population estimate for England and Wales was 464,000 higher (0.8 per cent) than the mid-year population estimates rolled-forward from the 2001 Census base. The largest single cause, said the ONS, was its underestimation of long-term immigration from Central and Eastern Europe in the middle part of the decade. In April, the ONS said that the net flow of migrants to the UK over a decade was underestimated by 346,000.



As for managing the downsides of migration, although accurate statistics are clearly essential, it’s just as important, argues Ballas, for the host country to anticipate an increase in migration. ‘The problems come when the host country isn’t well prepared to receive people,’ he says. ‘It makes sense to document what skills people have and where they might have ties in the UK, where they might want to live; if you don’t do that, then you have problems. The problem in the UK is that the debate isn’t about how to make the most of migration, it’s all negative, and that creates problems of its own.’

Blinder, meanwhile, questions whether the speed of migration has much of a role in the debate. ‘I wouldn’t put too much stress on the pace of change,’ he says. ‘Group conflict is a core feature of politics across many times, spaces and places.’ Instead, he argues, the economic case for and against migration is less of an issue than perceptions of incomers. ‘It’s quite a normal thing – politicians particularly identify a group, a national identity to favour their own, and look with suspicion on outsiders. So I don’t completely buy the argument that if only migration trickled along at a manageable pace, nobody would have a problem with it.’

‘The pace of change in our society isn’t just about migration,’ says Blomfield. ‘A lot has changed. The way people navigate their daily lives is very different to how it was 20 years ago. The position some people find themselves in after the 2008 financial meltdown has led to other worries. One of the most physically evident signs of change in communities is the possible appearance of migrants – when that does happen, it can accentuate concerns.’



Former US president Bill Clinton is famously associated with the phrase ‘[It’s] the economy stupid,’ when talking about voter priorities, but Kaufmann suggests that when it comes to migration, this isn’t always the case. ‘The issues can be cultural and about identity rather than economic,’ he says. ‘In surveys, poorer people respond to ethnicity rather than jobs. The middle class talks more about the economy. Among the far-right populist vote, cultural drivers are more important than economic ones. If you’re working class, your most prestigious identity tends to be your ethnicity rather than your professional identity. ‘If you look at geography, the more deprived a ward is, the more opposition there is to migration,’ he continues, pointing to studies that show that this opposition applies to both UK-born ethnic minorities (55 per cent concerned about migration) and white British (83 per cent).

This, however, depends on the ethnic mix of a neighbourhood. ‘You get a dampening effect,’ says Kaufmann. ‘White Britons who are a minority in a ward are significantly less opposed to migration than white Britons who are a majority.’

Across much of society, statistics and data tend to go out of the window when it comes to migration, argues Blinder. ‘We need to be careful not to overstate how much people look at the facts,’ he says. ‘They don’t do it generally in politics, so we shouldn’t really expect them to do so with a subject such as immigration. It’s more about who is on your side. There’s no good reason to assume that people will form political views 

on immigration based on a cost–benefit analysis, economic, pragmatic considerations.’ A lot of politics is about symbolism and values, he continues. ‘Immigration is a flashpoint for a lot of these sorts of considerations. Evidence only gets you so far on this question.’

Eleni Andreouli, a lecturer in psychology at the Open University, believes that the guardedness towards migration comes partly from a fear of change and difference. ‘People may feel that difference threatens their sense of identity and culture,’ she says.

This may be because the wider impacts on society are less tangible, as Ballas acknowledges. ‘Migrants also bring benefits in non-monetary ways that are more difficult to quantify – they expose their new country to a different culture,’ he says. ‘That’s good for personal development – it makes you look at things from a different perspective and that’s a positive thing. What it means to be British changes all the time.’



Migration into the UK, as the ONS data show, isn’t just driven by the EU’s freedom of movement. Migration from outside the EU also significantly bolsters the numbers of migrants. ‘There has been a significant increase in ethnic minorities in the past ten years,’ says Kaufmann. ‘There’s a real demographic change happening, so there’s sensitivity to rapid change. It isn’t just the working class. In the upper working class and lower middle class, around 90 per cent of people in surveys say that there’s too much immigration. For the middle classes, that figure is around 65–70 per cent. So there’s a general cultural opposition against migration that is cross-class.’

This May, Policy Exchange, a right-of-centre think tank, published A Portrait of Modern Britain, which draws on the 2011 census, polling and academic research. Headlines focused on how black and minority ethnic (BME) communities could represent ‘between 20 and 30 per cent of the UK’s population’ by 2051 (the current figure is 14 per cent).

However, the report also threw up some striking insights into how migration to the UK has unfolded since the 1950s. The report focused on BME groups rather than Eastern European immigration, and in the introduction, the authors concluded that ‘there is no single BME community’. More than 100 different languages are spoken in London’s playgrounds alone. Families that came to the UK decades ago from the Caribbean will be quite different to recent arrivals from Somalia, or indeed Indian immigrants from East Africa. And single ethnic identities are themselves becoming more complex due to the growth of the mixed population and generational change.’

Rishi Sunak, co-author of the report and head of the BME Unit at Policy Exchange, feels that the mistake of lumping all ethnic groups together as ‘BME’ is a signal of misreading how migration can play out. ‘On any metric you pick, there are quite strong differences between these groups,’ he says. ‘It probably means that these communities are of a significant size, and that English people have come to appreciate their attributes and culture.’



Interestingly, the report found that ethnic minorities are three times more likely than the white population to feel that ‘being British’ forms some part of their identity. It also found that ethnic minorities now engage in civic life and volunteering at levels similar to the white population. ‘When you get large-scale ethnic change, there tends to be a sense of anti-immigration,’ says Kaufmann. ‘What works against that is integration, assimilation, the fact that the younger generations are used to it. You get a process of habituation to new levels.’

Sunak believes that there may be some lessons to learn from this experience that can be applied to more recent EU migration. ‘It’s difficult to say what the new communities will look like in 30 years’ time,’ he says. ‘As far as assimilation and cohesion go, the lesson to be learnt is that we shouldn’t worry about that. The most positive thing we’ve seen about assimilation is that people are getting on in local areas – it’s a good news story about migration.’

Migration, and the perception of it, changes as the years pass. As second, third and fourth generations are born, Sunak points out, ‘not all minorities are immigrants. Long term, will this affect community cohesion, or undermine national identity? The evidence from the communities we looked at is that it does not.’



In this respect, the attitude of native Britons is key to assimilation, suggests Andreouli. ‘From the migrant’s perspective, identity is a matter of how we see ourselves, and how other people see us,’ she says. ‘The extent to which a migrant feels British is very often a response to how other people see them. It’s not an either/or issue – there can be combining identities coming into play. If people are able to combine multiple identities, then they can be more easily integrated.

‘People may be fully assimilated in their work, but maybe less so in their family lives. Integration isn’t a simple process,’ she continues. ‘It can take different forms in different spheres of life.’

Ballas sees the future unfolding in a positive way. ‘It’s inevitable that in the future, [migration] won’t be an issue,’ he says. ‘Migration goes the other way – there are already lots of British people in Spain and Greece, and in the future, there’s no reason why they won’t want to live in the many beautiful countries of Eastern Europe.’

All of this leaves Blinder with the sneaking suspicion that politicians have less control over migration than they would like to claim. ‘Migrations are definitely shaped by policy and law, but a lot of work shows that policy has limitations, even when there are goals to shape or limit migration. Policy makers aren’t all-powerful. It’s not always easy to influence migration flows. We’ve seen this in the UK with David Cameron’s pledges on migration – they had broad public support, were clearly articulated, but it has proved difficult to implement them in practice.’



Andreouli believes that the influence of politicians and the media goes some way to explaining the underling concerns about migration. ‘I don’t think people are being told the truth – that migration is beneficial,’ she says. ‘They are actually being told the opposite. Britain is changing – but it has always been changing. It’s an illusion to think that it has always been the same.’

Blomfield agrees that the migration debate is too often suffocated by headlines or vote grabbing. ‘Most migration has been good for the UK as a whole,’ he points out. ‘It’s a much more complicated and nuanced debate than the headlines give us space to conduct. There’s a sense of enormous frustration that attempts to hold a sensible debate on the pros and cons of migration are being hampered by hysterical headlines.’

Even so, Blomfield believes that simple drivers of migration will resolve the debate in the long term. ‘Some of the people that come will be fully assimilated, lots of them will go home,’ he says. ‘As the countries of Eastern Europe show longer term economic growth, their citizens will return. I would suggest that we should look at the future with some confidence. When you look at interviews with people from Bulgaria and Romania, none of them were inspired to particularly come to Britain – they were following the money. They want to earn money and then go home, which is what most of us do.’

This story was published in the August 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine

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