Can debates on immigration be ‘evidence-based’? And should they be?

This blog is based on a talk given at the Royal Geography Society on 22 March 2016.

We often hear the view that debates on immigration should be more ‘evidence based’: that they should be informed by expert knowledge and research. But what do we mean by this, and is it achievable?

The notion that policy or political debate should be evidence-based is actually quite recent. In the UK, this idea emerged under the Blair administration from 1997 onwards, when it became fashionable in government circles to talk about the need for evidence-based policy – political interventions informed by the facts, or what ‘works’. This reflected a wider technocratic turn in philosophies of public management. The idea that a large part of government was preoccupied with problems of steering: how to solve complex social and economic problems through regulation. This was in contrast to the traditional preoccupation of welfare states with allocating resources – policies that invoke debates around competing interests and values, rather than technical issues.

Debates on immigration policy in the late 1990s and early 2000s offer a good illustration of this technocratic turn. From around 1999, Immigration Minister Barbara Roche and others in government began to review and commission research on the economic and social impacts of immigration. A new research service was set up in the Home Office, to provide an ‘evidence base’ for policy on immigration and asylum. And political speeches and debate over this period – until the mid-2000s– feature frequent reference to research findings on the economic benefits of immigration.

This was a new way of framing immigration policy debate in Britain, which we can characterise as a ‘technocratic mode of settlement’: the expectation that political debate around immigration should be settled by recourse to expert knowledge or research.

But fast forward to the present, and the tenor of debate is very different indeed. Economic arguments about the effects of immigration appear to play a marginal role in debate. Discussion of the dynamics and effects of migration in the popular media and in party politics are frequently based on simplistic and popular ways of understanding and framing the issues. So what has happened over the past decade to produce such a radical shift in how we debate immigration policy?

First, we should bear in mind that before the late 1990s, UK immigration policy had been largely reactive, more a question of muddling through than planning. To be sure, research on ‘race relations’ exerted some influence on UK approaches towards integration and anti-discrimination legislation in the post-war era. But the UK never had a systematic debate about the economic case for immigration, and there is little evidence that governments drew on research on these questions. More generally, public debate on immigration was quite limited before the 1980s, characterised by a more ‘elitist’ approach to policy deliberation.

The emergence of a more technocratic debate in the early 2000s took many of us by surprise. It was the first time we’d had a debate about the economic aspects of immigration in the UK. One of the reasons this new way of framing the issue was able to take hold may be linked to its very novelty. Unlike other north and west European countries, the UK had no historical memory of actively recruiting immigrants to address labour shortages or boost growth. When German Chancellor Schroeder tried to launch a similar debate in Germany in the early 2000s, it was quickly shot down by his opponents as being elitist and out of touch – and as ignoring the lessons of history (the apparently ‘failed’ guest worker programme).

Another reason for the success of this technocratic framing was that the Labour government effectively channeled public concern into the question of asylum-seekers and irregular migration. Media reporting and political debate in the early 2000s focused almost exclusively on high asylum numbers – effectively distracting commentators from the question of labour migration.

We shouldn’t forget, too, that Britain was seeing a period of rapid growth, and the highest levels of employment for decades. I certainly don’t endorse the view that economic performance is a direct determinant of anti-immigrant sentiment – but low unemployment and rising standards of living certainly help mitigate anxiety about immigration.

The debate began to shift in the mid-2000s. First, media and political attention began to focus on rising numbers of EU immigrants in the UK – especially after the 2004 EU enlargement. The view that immigration brought economic benefits began to be questioned. This culminated in the publication of a House of Lords report of 2008 which was critical of previous claims about the positive fiscal and labour market impacts of immigration to the UK.

What emerged from the mid-2000s  was a more strategic use of research to substantiate different sides of the debate. Research became more politicised, marshalled selectively to support rival claims. The politicisation of research encouraged scepticism about its objectivity. If you can marshal research to support whichever argument you favour, then obviously evidence begins to lose its authority.

At the same time, as public concerns about immigration began to rise, we saw a rising perception that research on immigration was out of touch: elitist, abstracted from the real concerns of ordinary people. Research became discredited, losing its authority as a way of settling political contestation. And – for good or ill – there was an inexorable shift back to a democratic mode of settlement. Lay perspectives began to emerge as more legitimate than expert knowledge on immigration.

This trend was reinforced by party political rhetoric. Both Conservatives and Labour began to backtrack on more positive framing of the economic impacts of immigration. And then in 2010, we see Conservative policies consolidating a very simplistic notion of immigration. The net migration target was premised on a very crude notion that the problem was one of over-crowding, and the goal should be an overall reduction in all types of immigration. This formulation of a single target failed to recognise any distinction between motives for immigration, types of immigrants, impacts on the economy or society, or variation in impacts across the UK. We also see Conservative Party rhetoric and policies reinforcing perceptions about the economic and social costs of immigration – especially regarding welfare dependency, and pressure on public services.

So the technocratic debate of the early 2000s was initially undermined by the politicisation of research, and the discrediting of ‘elitist’ expertise; a trend which has been reinforced by a party political discourse that endorses quite simplistic views about immigration.

So can we get back to the previous type of technocratic debate? Do we want to?

Here, it’s interesting to look to the German case. When the SPD attempt to liberalise labour migration in the early 2000s was blocked, Schroeder set up a cross-party commission on immigration. The commission as composed of representatives from the main political parties, trade unions, business, religious groups and NGOs. It drew on evidence from a range of witnesses and experts. The debate triggered by the commission underpinned a really significant shift in public debates on immigration and asylum policy. It allowed Germans to air concerns about immigration, and in many cases put these in context. To build up a comprehensive picture of the impacts of immigration. And this paved the way of a gradual liberalisation from the late 2000s onwards.

As I’ve argued before, I think we need something like this in the UK. Not in the form of a top-down, elite-led debate, to ‘educate’ the public. We know that won’t work – nor is it desirable in a democracy. At the same time, debate should not be dominated by populist ways of framing of the problem. We need to find the right balance between allowing people to articulate their concerns, and feel they are being taken seriously. And a debate that draws on expert knowledge and evidence to help place these issues in context, and build up a more nuanced and realistic picture of the dynamics and impacts of immigration.

We can’t go back to the elite-led policies of the 1960s, or the technocratic debates of the early 2000s. But neither should we accept the popular framing of immigration in current media and political debates. We need to develop forums that enable us to combine both modes of deliberation.

Posted in Immigration, Research & Policy, Targets | Leave a comment

The deal on EU immigration and welfare is symbolic – but Brexit won’t solve the ‘problem’ of EU immigration either

A consensus seems to be emerging that the deal on welfare access for EU migrants struck in Brussels last week is largely symbolic. It is unlikely to have a significant effect on the mobility decisions of potential migrants; nor does it look like it will produce any substantial savings.

It is important to be absolutely clear about why it will not have a big impact. Part of the story is that the deal doesn’t actually promise that much. The famous ‘emergency brake’ would only be in place for a maximum of 7 years. And it can only limit access to in-work tax benefits for newly arriving EU immigrants, for the first four years. Moreover, the text of the deal makes clear that over this four year period, benefits should be incrementally phased in, as immigrants become more integrated into the labour market.

But more importantly, the whole premise of the deal is misguided. EU migrants are not a fiscal burden – the vast majority come to the UK to work, are typically young and often (at least initially) without dependants, and make a net contribution to the public purse. Only an estimated 1 in 10 EU migrants claim some form of in-work tax credits, and that is typically a few years into their stay, when they settle down and have children. While the DWP has been very reticent about releasing figures, the Guardian has estimated that only 84,000 households would have been affected by the emergency brake had it been introduced 4 years ago.

Finally, for those households that are effected, the ban may induce unintended effects. For example, households most likely to receive such credits are families with children, where only one parent works. In cases of two-parent households, one obvious response would be for the second parent to start seeking work. As for the plans to index child benefits for children living in countries of origin, parents may actually decide to move their children to live with them in the UK.

However, the problem with this line of argument is that it can be deployed by Euro-sceptics to underpin their arguments for Brexit. Indeed, Euro-sceptic Tories and UKIP have been keen to press home that the Brussels package is unlikely to have much impact on immigration. And this is seen as a vindication of their claims that the UK can only limit EU immigrant by leaving the EU. But here lies one of the biggest misunderstandings of the debate. No country has been able successfully to access the EU’s common market without accepting provisions on the free movement of workers.

European Economic Area countries such as Norway, who are out of the EU but benefit from access to the free market, have signed up to provisions on free movement – indeed, Norway is part of the Schengen area (which the UK is not). Switzerland attempted to withdraw from EU free movement arrangements following a referendum in 2014. But this has sparked a huge row with the EU, and a ban from EU research funding. The dispute is not yet resolved. (Michael Keating discusses some of these issues here.)

The other option, then, is to negotiate more limited access to the common market. This would work fine for free movement of goods (which are largely covered by WTO agreements anyway), but would almost certainly fail to secure the current favourable deal on financial services.

Even assuming the UK were able to negotiate this imaginary deal, what would the consequences be of limiting EU immigration? Steve Peers has written about the possible implications for UK nationals abroad. Here I will focus on the question of whether such a withdrawal from EU mobility provisions would limit immigration.

The first point to note is that EU immigrants only account for just under half of current immigration from overseas. Even if they were completely removed from the equation, we would still be seeing net migration of well over 100,000 per year. I suspect that current levels of EU immigration will also decline over the coming years. Immigration from the A-8 countries – the Central and East European states that joined the EU in 20014 (including Poland) – is already in decline. Most current EU immigration is from the ‘older’ EU member states, notably southern European countries affected by the economic crisis. And that is likely to fall, as their economies eventually pick up.

The second point is that – as the latest ONS figures show – 58% of labour migrants from the EU already have a job set up on arrival. So the question is, what would happen if this flow of workers stopped? One intuitive answer is that British nationals would take the jobs. But that overlooks the problem of labour market ‘mismatch’. Even in contexts of high unemployment, the available workforce does not always ‘match’ job vacancies. This may be because they don’t have the required skills; because they are living in another part of the country and are unable or unwilling to relocate; or because the salary or work conditions are not sufficiently attractive. All of these factors can mean that employers are dependent on foreign workers to fill vacancies. I would conjecture that many of the jobs EU nationals are currently occupying have these features. They are jobs that UK nationals are unable or unwilling to do. And if that is the case, then stopping EU immigration could deprive UK business of much-needed labour.

One way of addressing labour market mismatch is to make jobs more attractive to current UK residents. And indeed, the new National Living Wage, which comes into force in April this year, is a good (if modest) start. Higher salaries could encourage UK nationals to take up jobs that they would not otherwise have considered.

Yet the catch here is that the Living Wage only applies to workers of 25 years or over. For under 25s, lower minimum wage provisions apply. So this might encourage businesses to circumvent the rules by employing younger workers – and newly arriving EU immigrants tend to be in their early 20s. Moreover, where businesses feel they cannot afford these extra costs, then they may try to circumvent the rules and employ workers on an irregular basis – and this would most likely mean employing foreign nationals. So policy-makers should look carefully at the age thresholds. And, crucially, the rules will need to be rigorously enforced in order to avoid immigrant workers being recruited to undercut the higher rates of pay.

In fact, the national living wage – and, importantly, its enforcement – may have a much more significant impact on EU immigration than the proposed reduction in welfare payments, or even than a putative withdrawal from EU mobility provisions. And this brings us full circle back to the original point. The answer to current concerns about EU immigration is not to limit immigration, or to limit access to welfare benefits. We need to understand the reasons why the UK labour market acts as a draw to EU immigrants. And – if this is seen to be a problem – it will be necessary to  find ways to better match the supply of (resident UK) labour, and labour market demand. This should be the real debate on EU immigration.

Posted in Brexit, Immigration, Symbolic politics | 3 Comments

Time for a frank debate on immigration

Here’s a link to an op ed on UK immigration policy, published in the Herald last month. It followed an event we hosted at Edinburgh University on the net migration target, analysing new data on UK net migration.

The article and the event were part of a wider research project on the Politics of Monitoring, sponsored by ESRC.





Posted in Brexit, Immigration, Research & Policy | 2 Comments

The net migration target may have failed, but it has shifted the way we debate immigration

Figures released by the ONS today suggest that net migration to the UK stands at an all time high, at 336,000. The UK government’s pledge to reduce net migration ‘from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands’ seems further than ever from being achieved.

So why hasn’t the government killed off this compromising target? One obvious answer is the political risk of abandoning a target once it has been set. Cameron and Theresa May are fully aware that the target is in many ways a liability. But they have calculated that dropping the target at this stage will send out an even more damaging political message: that their commitment to reducing immigration has been diluted.

But while the target may have been a failure, it has had significant effects on the way we talk about immigration. By setting a single, high-profile, quantitative target, the government has irreversibly shifted how we define and assess policy on immigration.

In our ESRC project on the Politics of Monitoring, we distinguish two main effects of this type of quantitative performance measurement. The first concerns how we categorise and count immigrants. The exercise of counting net migration implies suppressing important distinctions between groups – whether students, intra-company transferees and European Economic Area nationals, family migrants or refugees – and counting them as equivalent units. This glosses over important differences in the reasons behind migration, for example whether it is economic, family-related, linked to study, or fleeing persecution. And it overlooks the varied impacts of immigrants on the UK economy and society, as well as differences across regions of the UK.

Importantly, this re-classification of which immigrants ‘count’ has shifted political attention, bringing previously unproblematic – or even unobserved – groups of immigrants into the political spotlight. Few people were anxious about foreign students or high-skilled labour migrants before the target was introduced. Now they are all part of a problem to be reduced. What’s more, these new classifications are now embedded in the way statistics are produced and disseminated, and the way in which the public expects to appraise the government and hold it to account.

The second effect concerns the role of measurement. It has now become normal to frame immigration issues through using statistics, and especially in terms of overall flows. The use of numbers provides a particularly clear and authoritative way of expressing goals, one that appears more precise and objective than qualitative descriptions. It promises an especially rigorous way of holding government to account.

Opposition parties have played into this, frequently pegging their critique on the government’s failure to meet its own target. This constant invocation of the target – even by its detractors – only reinforces the idea that such targets are valid and appropriate ways of framing policy. Meanwhile, Labour has struggled to articulate a clear and compelling message on immigration, partly because of its (justifiable) refusal to adopt a clear and simply target. The fact of the matter is, targets work very well as political messages.

We may dislike targets. We may find them simplifying, distorting and in many cases unrealistic. But once policies are framed in terms of precise quantitative goals, it is very difficult to undo these effects. In UK immigration debates, it has become difficult to resist assessing policy in terms of overall inflows of migrants, or articulating goals in terms of numbers. The net migration target may have failed, but it has profoundly influenced the way we deliberate on immigration policy.


Posted in Immigration, Targets | 1 Comment

How the refugee crisis disrupted the European project of outsourcing – and technocratising – refugee protection

In the midst of the heady events of August and September 2015, as Germany and Austria welcomed their doors to hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers, it was tempting to imagine that we were witnessing a Damascene moment in refugee policy. After a quarter of a century of restrictive EU policy, a number of European governments appeared to be eschewing ‘fortress Europe’ and ushering in more humane approaches. Faced with the prospect of a humanitarian crisis at their borders, and vocal public support for welcoming refugees, it seemed that European asylum policies might be undergoing a radical shift.

That impulse was, perhaps predictably, short-lived. After a few weeks of experimenting with open borders, Germany and Austria have been duly reprimanded by the president of the European Council, opposition parties have started agitating against what they see as an irresponsible transgression, and policy has reverted to the default restrictive approach: negotiating with transit countries to outsource migration control, and measures to identify and finger-print refugees entering Italy and Greece. As for refugee protection, the onus is once more on reinforcing assistance in refugee camps surrounding Syria.

But what happened the past summer is hugely significant. Not because of the scale of the humanitarian problem that triggered the response. Those Syrian refugees who made it via the so-called ‘eastern route’ through Turkey, Greece, and Serbia or Croatia, were but a fraction of those displaced by conflict. There are 4 million refugees displaced from Syria, and millions more internally displaced within the country. Not to mention the estimated 60 million displaced globally. European countries only ever see a small proportion of the world’s dispossessed.

The significance of the crisis lies instead in what it exposed: three decades of attempts to detach Europe and its publics from the messy reality of forced displacement. This detachment is both physical and psychological. The physical detachment has been accomplished through the outsourcing of migration control and refugee protection to other regions. Visas, carrier sanctions and pre-frontier control rolled out since the 1980s mean that it is almost impossible for refugees to arrive on European territory. If they do manage, then readmission agreements, detention and ever more restrictive asylum processing and recognition criteria mean they have slim prospects of being allowed to stay. Meanwhile, a raft of agreements with source and transit countries – from conditional development aid, to ‘mobility partnerships’ and funding ‘reception in the region’ – elicit cooperation in keeping would-be migrants and refugees well away from Europe.

Perhaps even more powerful is the psychological detachment. Asylum policies have become increasingly technocratised: debate revolves almost exclusively around what tools should be adopted to reduce asylum numbers. Ethical debates around duties to refugees are relegated to church groups and NGOs – they are not topics for mainstream party politics. Nowhere is this more striking than in the UK, with its penchant for performance targets. From Tony Blair’s target of halving asylum applications in 2003, to the current government’s pledge to reduce net migration (including asylum) to the tens of thousands, UK governments have helped frame asylum as an abstract, quantifiable problem that needs to be reduced or eliminated. These sanitised, technical depictions of the problem are detached from context and the particular. They rely on anonymised data, rather than rich description.

Both of these modes of detachment imply a form of estrangement from the figure of the refugee or asylum seeker. The result has been that the issue has been sanitised – even dehumanised – in European public debate. The arrival of refugees over the summer, and especially the poignant images of particular families, and of individual children, destabilised this state of detachment. This was what was so striking about the events of the late summer. We caught a brief glimpse of these refugees as mothers, fathers, friends, children. And we gained some insight into the anguish, frustrations and aspirations that drove them across Europe. Refugees have always been there, we have just avoided seeing them.

Posted in Immigration, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Our sterile quantitative debate on immigration needs to be humanised through stories and images

The body of a small boy, 3-year old Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a beach near the Turkish resort of Bodrum. This was the tragic image that captured mass media attention, and galvanised responses from a number of EU leaders including David Cameron.

Posted in Immigration, Targets | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Plans to Evict ‘Illegal’ Immigrants: A Lesson in Symbolic Politics

This week the government announced plans to facilitate the eviction of tenants illegally resident in the UK. As part of their drive to ‘create a hostile environment for illegal migrants’, the government will remove legal obstacles to evicting non-nationals who do not have legal residency status. They will also introduce penalties for landlords who fail to enforce the new provisions.

This measure doesn’t make sense on any practical level. First, those evicted are likely to end up homeless or in overcrowded accommodation. They will be vulnerable to exploitation by ruthless landlords operating outside the rules – indeed the measure is likely to lead to a growth in the irregular property letting market.

Second, as pilots of this scheme have already shown, landlords are likely to be more cautious about letting to non-nationals, or even British nationals who cannot produce the relevant documentation. Certain ethnic minority groups already face discrimination in accessing accommodation, and this measure can only make matters worse.

Thirdly, it’s far from clear how evicting people from their property will facilitate the ‘removal’ of those who’ve overstayed their legal residency. One group targeted by the new measure is asylum applicants whose cases have been rejected. We know how challenging it has been for consecutive governments to remove people in this situation. Labour had a series of targets for removal of rejected asylum-seekers, which they rarely met. The current government has hardly done better. So why would the Home Office want to make it more difficult to keep track of this group by evicting them from known addresses?

Fourthly, it’s simply not credible that this provision will deter those who are seeking to reside and work in the UK without legal status. There will be ways of finding accommodation through friends and informal networks – or living rough. Access to the legal property market is likely to be pretty low down on the list of considerations for those fleeing persecution or poverty and seeking a better life in the UK.

But of course, the measure is not about practical considerations. It’s not seriously designed to reduce the incentives of potential migrants to move to the UK, or to encourage the return of those already resident.  It’s far more all about signaling to target voters that the government is tough on immigration; that it is taking action to tackle illegal entry and stay, especially given its problems grappling with problems at Calais.

In an earlier blog I wrote about the risks of this form of symbolic politics. Cosmetic adjustments can easily catch governments out, once it becomes clear that they are not having any substantive effect. This has been the fate of the net migration target, which the government has been unable to meet.

But governments are less likely to run this risk in the area of illegal immigration. By definition, illegal immigrants attempt to remain invisible to official structures. And while researchers have produced various methods for ‘guesstimating’ the size of the illegally resident population, it is impossible to produce accurate figures. This implies that the impact of government measures to control and limit irregular migration will be difficult to gauge. The only things that can be reliably measured are incidents captured by official data, such as the number of evictions,  or prosecutions of landlords. But we will never know whether the measure has had an impact on the size of the illegal population in Britain, let alone whether it has altered the incentives of would-be migrants. These features make the initiative ideal as an instance of symbolic politics: rhetorically stringent; while in practice, ineffectual or possibly counter-productive.

Posted in Immigration, Symbolic politics, Uncategorized | 2 Comments