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.


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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.

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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.

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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

When ignorance is bliss: The political risks of putting illegal immigrants on the agenda

Yesterday David Cameron set out a three-point plan for reducing immigration to the UK. With the net migration target slipping further and further from their grasp, the government is understandably shopping around for new solutions. One of the proposals is familiar: seeking to renegotiate the terms of free movement. Although EEA nationals only comprise around half of current immigration flows, there is now a fairly entrenched narrative coupling the problem of immigration control with EU provisions on mobility. The second proposal was sensible, but hardly a direct or short-term solution: reducing the demand for skilled workers by training up UK apprentices. As I argued with some economist colleagues in a report for the European Commission some years ago, predicting which skills and occupations are likely to face shortages over the next 5-10 years is no easy task; incentivising people to train up in these areas, and then to relocate to the part of the country offering the relevant jobs, is equally challenging. But good luck to them.

But it is the third suggestion that I find intriguing: ramping up government policies to tackle illegal immigration. Cameron hinted at a number of measures to make it more difficult for unauthorised immigrants to access housing or employment. I find this new approach intriguing because it effectively opens up a new front in the government’s quest to demonstrate it is reducing immigration. Consecutive UK governments have – which understandably – preferred to retain a degree of opacity in this area. Estimates of the unauthorised population resident in any country are notoriously difficult to produce. Unauthorised immigrants by definition attempt to remain invisible to official structures. The Home Office last commissioned comprehensive research on this question back in 2004, in the form of an estimate by UCL researchers, which – with many caveats – suggested a very broad range of figures.

The lack of regular, reliable information about illegal immigrants resident in the UK has buffered the Home Office and the government from political pressure to tackle the problem. To be sure, consecutive Home Secretaries, including Theresa May, have introduced measures to try to curb the problem. May’s main contributions have been to outsource monitoring practices to higher education, banks and land-lords, and to increase employer penalties for illegally employing non-nationals. But enforcement of such provisions is resource-intensive and often fraught with practical and legal difficulties. Given the current squeeze on Home Office resources, it’s not surprising to see that the number of employers issued with civil penalties for employing illegal immigrants has actually been declining since 2009-10 (see p.11 of this report).

So given the difficulties in monitoring and enforcing rules on unauthorised residence and work, why would the government want to up the ante in this area? Doesn’t it just expose them to unfeasible expectations in an area which is notoriously difficult to control? Presumably the answer is that Cameron’s government is preoccupied with the short-term problem of signalling its resolve to get tough on immigration. Certainly the emphasis on fining employees, rather than employers, suggests a punitive and highly symbolic approach. An even more cynical interpretation would be that Cameron and May know the government can’t be effectively monitored in this area. While there are data on prosecutions and deportations (and these could prove embarrassing if the Home Office fails to deliver), there is no way of reliably counting unauthorised residents. Unlike with the net migration, the government would at least avoid the quarterly torture of having its failure set out in figures.

Nonetheless, I’m still puzzled as to why the government would want to open up this new front. Surely the net migration target presents problems enough. Why raise attention to another aspect of immigration outside of the target, and one which consecutive governments have failed to tackle? They would have done far better to maintain opacity in this morally and legally fraught area of immigration policy.

Posted in Immigration, Targets, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Borgenisation of UK Politics: good news for immigrants?

Policy experts have devoted massive attention to analysing the effect of UKIP on immigration policy. But there’s been very little reflection on how other ‘smaller’ parties might affect immigration policy. Based on the recent pre-election leaders’ debates in the UK and Scotland, it’s time to address this imbalance. By offering a platform to the leaders of all 7 parties, the debates provided an opportunity for smaller parties with more progressive immigration policies – the Green Party, the SNP and Plaid Cymru – to showcase their party positions on immigration. The outcome was music to the ears of those advocating more liberal policy. Here were three voices articulating a more progressive vision, and prepared to confront UKIP views head on. By contrast, the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems came across as reticent or non-committal.

One reason for this is that these smaller parties are targeting niche groups in the electorate, and can afford to dispense with the more anti-immigrant segments of the electorate – indeed in the case of the Green Party, they hope to broaden their support by positioning themselves as pro-immigration. This contrasts with the strategies of the two main parties, which are still effectively ‘catch-all’ groupings, aiming to attract supporters from across the ideological and territorial spectrum, including those who are concerned about immigration. Labour also feels shackled by perceptions of its poor record in controlling immigration before 2000. And the Lib Dems are compromised by their failure to mitigate the restrictive rhetoric and policies of their coalition partners over the past 5 years.

So does this imply that the emergence of a greater number of smaller parties, representing more niche sections of the electorate, will usher in a more enlightened debate on immigration? Is the Borgenisation of UK politics a good think for immigrants? Perhaps. However, I’d suggest two reasons for caution.

First, the strength of this progressive voice wasn’t just a question of numbers, i.e. the inclusion of 3 leaders with more liberal stances. The format of the event – a hustings-style public meeting, with an audience selected to represent the electorate – lent itself to a more progressive vibe. It staged a very culturally entrenched ritual of the UK democratic process. Implicit in this format is the idea of inclusivity, fairness, an equal right to be heard – perhaps even Habermas’s “ideal speech situation”. In such formats, speakers who articulate ethical positions, who express a commitment to norms of fairness, rights, tolerance, or liberty, often get an especially good reception. They capture the inclusive, democratic mood. In such settings, progressive views on immigration are far more likely to enlist vocal support. But let’s not get too carried away. These formats are far removed from the mode of debate characterising most political discussion between friends, families and colleagues. And it’s a far cry from what canvassers report they are hearing ‘on the doorstep’.

Second, this 7-way platform is far from typical of media coverage of party positions. While the debate gave each leader roughly equal airtime, even the BBC weights its coverage based on level of electorate support. And the print media of course have no such strictures, determining coverage based on their ideological affinities (which in the UK are mainly anti-immigration). So we can’t expect the progressive views of the three smaller parties to penetrate large sections of the popular media.

That said, I found it immensely refreshing, even exhilarating, to hear a robust defence of immigrants and calls for a more open and realistic approach to immigration. And I was reminded of how the public mood can turn against overly negative or restrictive views. Recall the reaction against Michael Howerd’s excessively anti-immigration position in the 2005 election. Public debates provide good forums for shoring up collective support for fairer and more humane positions. I think they bring out our better nature.

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The net migration target shows how difficult it is for liberal governments to restrict immigration

Scholars have long identified a so-called ‘liberal constraint’ on immigration policy. The argument goes as follow. Public opinion tends to favour restrictive policies, and politicians know they stand to lose votes by permitting large-scale immigration. Yet a number of ‘liberal constraints’ kick in, which limit how restrictive they can really be. International human rights and refugee law – often codified in national constitutions and legislation – obliges them to admit people for humanitarian reasons. For EU or EEA countries, treaty obligations mean they have to allow the nationals of member states access to their labour markets. Concerns about inter-ethnic or ‘race’ relations often pull them back from blatantly discriminatory measures that might stoke domestic tensions. And clearly, liberal states have a strong interest in securing foreign labour to plug gaps in labour supply, or to bring in skills and experience that enhance productivity. Put all these together, and it becomes much, much harder to deliver promises to reduce immigration.

Now the liberal constraint hasn’t stopped governments from employing highly restrictive rhetoric on immigration. Indeed, a classic way of reconciling hostile public opinion with liberal constraints is to separate rhetoric from practice: to preach restriction, while covertly tolerating or encouraging immigration. Such covert encouragement can involve introducing low profile administrative arrangements for entry of certain groups, e.g. through intra-company transfers, or seasonal worker schemes, or posted workers. Or it can involve tolerating substantial numbers of undocumented foreign workers who are periodically ‘regularised’ through amnesties. Most European governments have tried one or more of these strategies.

But this decoupling of rhetoric and practice is less easy when you have a migration target. A quantified target obviously means the level of migration – or at least regular migration – is closely measured and scrutinised by your critics.

So this the position the Conservative Party now finds itself in. Desperately keen to meet public demands for restriction; but constrained in doing so by the liberal constraint. There’s only so far it can clamp down on asylum and family migration, and only so far it wants to restrict high-skilled and student migration. And of course, it can’t limit EEA mobility while it remains an EU member. What’s worse, it now has UKIP breathing down its neck, blissfully heedless of any liberal constraint, in true populist, opposition party style.

What can be done?

First, it’s worth stressing that the last Labour government was in exactly the same position towards the end of its administration. After Labour’s initial period of liberalising migration policy in 2002-4, in the latter half of the 2000s the Home Office attempted to limit labour migration in exactly the same way as the Tories have done: closing non-EEA low-skilled routes; cracking down on abuse of the student route; and limiting non-EEA labour migration to a high-skilled categories. If we take away the Tories’ net migration target – which we know now is largely symbolic – the two main UK parties have very little standing between them on immigration policy.

Second, it should be clear by now that neither party would be able to deliver policies that are more restrictive than those currently pursued by Theresa May. Because of the liberal constraint, any responsible, liberal, business-friendly party will be hard pressed to find ways of further limiting legal immigration. (Short of leaving the EU, that is.) This fact has been blatantly exposed now, thanks to the net migration target: the target has driven home the impossibility of any mainstream party pursuing a more draconian approach.

So rather than being a sitting duck to UKIP, why not open up a more honest debate about immigration? Why don’t the main political parties – Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems, perhaps the SNP too – set up a cross-party commission to thoroughly explore and debate immigration? The Germans did it in 2001, with their influential Immigration Commission, chaired by the moderate CDU politician Rita Suessmuth. The Commission brought together figures from across the political spectrum, trade union and employers, immigrant and religious groups, to deliberate various aspects of immigration: the economic arguments for different kinds of immigration; its social and cultural impacts; challenges of integration and multi-culturalism; and the human rights and humanitarian norms and considerations underpinning asylum and family migration. It was a painful and often fraught process. But the Germans appear have a much more healthy public debate on immigration now, and a more sensible and realistic discussion between the main political parties. If only we could do something similar here.

The net migration target is widely reviled. But maybe its failure has served a useful function: exposing the fact that no mainstream party – no matter how resolved – can or should radically reduce immigration. Now we’ve realised that, the next step has to be to open up a discussion on how we try to manage immigration in a way that balances liberal values and goals with public concerns about its impacts.

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