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Towards a rational immigration policy

August 30th, 2017

Turkey has mandatory conscription for men between 20 and 41.  Gay men, however, are exempt.  According to the official commentary to the army’s health regulation, to be exempted from service, “documentary evidence must prove that the defects in sexual behaviour are obvious and would create problems when revealed in a military context.”  Many gay men have to endure pseudo-scientific tests designed to appraise both their homosexuality and the extent to which it might render them “unfit” for service.

Some are asked to produce photographs showing them as participants in anal intercourse. According to the military, and Turkish society at large, penetrating another man does not necessarily qualify as a homosexual act; only being penetrated is undisputedly homosexual. Hence the unwritten rule when it comes to such photos: “The man should be in the passive position, receiving from behind,” a psychiatrist explains, “and looking at the camera. Preferably while smiling…”

Britain is equally buggered when it comes to setting a sensible migration policy.  Like the Turkish military, it is trapped between two conflicting ambitions to be prescriptive (in Britain’s case, to reject the immigrants it doesn’t want and to secure the immigrants it does want).  The immigration debate in Britain suffers from a hopeless confusion of these two aims and a lack of understanding that the world has moved on in the last few years.

Here are just some of the points that routinely get missed.

Migrants are a ring species

International executive jobseekers don’t have much in common with the type of asylum seeker who has fled his homeland for fear of having his fingernails extracted by the secret police, but in between there are many shades of nuance, the one blending into the next.  The young gay man who wants to live and work in a country without police harassment isn’t exactly a refugee but he isn’t just an economic migrant either.

Migrants of all types have more agency than ever before

Migrants of all types are richer than before, so they will try to select a destination rather than just flop in the nearest place available.  Every country would like to be able to choose the profile of the immigrants that it accepts. Popular destinations, including Britain, risk finding that their immigrant profile is defined more by the migrants themselves.

There is no easy answer to this question.  Migrants are not going to stop wanting to come to popular rich countries, or trying.

We won’t be going back to 1972 border controls after leaving the EU

Migration patterns have changed out of all recognition since Britain joined the EEC.  The fond memories that some Leavers have of dancing across the continent with flowers in their hair unhindered by flinty border police will not be repeated, any more than their flower-decked hair will grow back.  In a world of mass migration, border controls for those outside the circle of trust are going to be steelier.

Industry needs immigrants

To read the tabloids, you would think that the stout men and women of Britain were being ousted from jobs by nefarious foreigners.  Yet employment is at an all time high, unemployment is at a 40 year low and job vacancies are at an all time high.  Even if you believe that some of these jobs can and should be automated (disclosure: I do), immediately removing migrants would be highly disruptive.  Fruit needs picking.  Tables need waiting.  Robbie the Robot isn’t going to come to our rescue tomorrow.  Since there just aren’t the British workers available to do the work in the meantime, Robbie the Romanian will have to do for a while.

Like it or not, Britain is likely to need large numbers of immigrants for the next few years.  If it doesn’t, that means that Britain will have suffered a crash.  So even the most unwelcoming of Leavers should be prepared to see immigrants for many years to come.

Some consequential problems of immigration can be dealt with differently (eg by putting more money into necessary infrastructure)

There are frequent complaints that migrants put strains on local infrastructure, whether the NHS or education system or housing.  Nigel Farage blamed his late arrival at a UKIP conference on an immigrant-fuelled traffic jam.  Some of these complaints are clearly overstated: most of the costs of the NHS are expended on the elderly who are disproportionately unlikely to be migrants.  Others clearly have some validity.  If large numbers of migrants move into an area, housing is likely to become scarcer.

This can be tackled by reducing the number of migrants.  Alternatively, it can be tackled by improving the infrastructure – building more homes, for example.  There are always options.

A tightly-controlled immigration policy implies very centralised economic planning

Post-Brexit Britain will have control of its immigration policy.  During the referendum campaign, Leave were touting an Australian points-style system, by which the government would set the criteria for admission.  (Since Australia has a much higher rate of immigration than Britain, this might be slightly puzzling to the naive.)  Oddly, this is advocated most strongly by free-marketeers who normally regard with scorn the idea that the government is best placed to judge industry’s needs.

Yet the logical consequence of following such an approach is to let the government decide how many workers in each industry are needed.  In some online industries, the industry is barely defined and the fluidity of categories is a feature not a bug.  I guess that means that Britain is opting out of such sectors from now on.

The official statistics are pretty rubbish

We found out this last week that previous estimates of overstaying students were wrong, with the updated number just 4% of the previous estimate.  The ONS is very defensive of its numbers.  As with other nets of two very large numbers, the immigration statistics are likely to be out by quite some way.  We don’t really know which way though.  That doesn’t help us in drawing up sensible policies.

Leaving the EU will not really make solving these problems any easier

Many migrants to Britain come from the EU.  Many come from outside the EU.  Britain has already got more or less full control over migration from outside the EU.  It doesn’t seem to be able to use it.  It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that migration policy is going to be just as messy and controversial after Britain leaves the EU as before.

Alastair Meeks