Migration and the liberal dilemma

The Spring conference will be discussing migration policy in Southport, on the basis of a carefully-written consultation paper. This is a particularly difficult topic for Liberals. Almost all of us would prefer to live in a world in which borders were open, and immigrants and refugees were welcomed. But global population growth, combined with state collapse, civil conflict and climate change, are combining to create a rising flow of migrants – driven both by political disorder and economic deprivation – towards the safe and prosperous countries of Western Europe. Many of them are trafficked on their way, maltreated as they struggle to escape danger and better their lives. How can we respond without abandoning our liberal values?

Taking back control of our borders was one of the most powerful messages of the Leave campaign. Migration Watch helped the Brexiteers to blur the differences between immigration from other EU countries (significant but within limits, as populations across the EU are stable or falling) and from the rest of the world. The 3.6 million citizens from elsewhere in the EU in the UK in 2016 were, on Migration Policy Institute figures, three times the number in 2005. Many have been recruited directly by British employers (including the NHS), often to fill skill shortages, sometimes because the jobs or pay on offer did not attract willing British applicants. One answer to this, which the Consultation paper doesn’t mention, is to invest more in skills and training within the UK. The sharp fall in the number of new apprenticeships in 2017 shows that we are moving in the wrong direction; cuts in funding for schools and FE colleges will make the situation worse, and increase our dependence on external recruitment.

What Migration Watch and Brexit Central don’t say is that the longer-term challenge we face is from immigration from outside Europe – and that it’s a challenge that we can only manage in collaboration with our continental neighbours. The population of Africa has doubled (to 1.2 billion) in the past 30 years, and continues to grow at over 30 million a year; weak states, conflict and drought all drive desperate efforts to escape across the Mediterranean. The Middle East and South Asia also have high rates of population increase, water shortages, and governments failing to provide stability and economic growth. One estimate, for example, suggests that depletion of water will force 15 million Iranians to migrate within the next 20 years; civil war in Syria, and endemic conflict in Afghanistan, already drive a flow of desperate migrants towards the safe havens of Western Europe and North America.

That level of pressure makes the consultation’s objective of a ‘fair and humane’ response to migrants (many of whom will be refugees from intolerable local circumstances) almost impossible: numbers count, and large numbers of incomers are difficult to absorb without weakening social cohesion and straining resources. An enlightened response to this must include active support for women’s rights and education in these regions – the surest way to slow population growth, amongst other advantages. Development policy, and defence policy, need to focus (with European partners) on the delicate tasks of building stable and effective governance, and sustainable economies, in Africa and West and South Asia, to enable their population to flourish there.

The consultation paper rightly notes the weaknesses of the UK Border Force – its numbers cut in recent years – and of Home Office management of immigration. It does not directly address the awkward question that the UK’s lack of a population register – or some form of identity registration – makes the task of assuring that all those living within our borders are entitled to do so extremely difficult. That’s another uncomfortable issue for Liberals (me included). Nor, in the useful section on social cohesion, does it confront the contradiction between ensuring that all existing citizens have rights and that newcomers are fairly treated. An American commentator has coined the phrase ‘aggrieved entitlement’ to describe the attitudes of their white working class to jobs and benefits given to minorities and new arrivals.

I don’t have answers to these dilemmas. And I recognise that the British public, to whom we wish to appeal, are at best wavering liberals on this. In Ripon Cathedral, in mid-referendum campaign, I set out the European migration issue, and argued that the church-going audience had to consider ‘who is my neighbour’. After a break into smaller groups for discussion, one responded that ‘we have been discussing who is NOT my neighbour’. But we need a defensible position, which can persuade a significant proportion of the voters to trust us on migration, and the consultation paper takes us usefully in that direction.

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.

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  • Mark Seaman 5th Mar '18 - 1:12pm

    Yet another misrepresentation of Migration-Watch, an organisation whose predictions on the increase in Britain’s population have been far more accurate that any official Government statistics or assessments on this web-site. Having actually read Migration-Watch reports, I commend their doing the very opposite of ‘blurring the differences’.

  • A nuanced article, William.

    Tony Blair had a vision of a new, post-Westphalian, ‘doctrine of the international community.'” arguing that globalization had made the Westphalian approach anachronistic. We saw this in action with Labour’s waving of any transition period for freedom of movement following the accession of the East European states to the EU in the early 2000’s.
    The concept of Europe after 1945 was and still is a rejection of the European balance-of-power principle and the hegemonic ambitions of individual states that had emerged following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, a rejection which took the form of closer meshing of vital interests and the transfer of nation-state sovereign rights to supranational European institutions.

    The European Union’s concept of shared sovereignty is also somewhat contrary to traditional views of Westphalian sovereignty, as it provides for external agents to influence and interfere in the internal affairs of its member countries.

    In many ways a Liberal committment to Internationalism and globalisation undermines the traditional concept of Westphalian sovreignity – something that does not sit easy with socially conservative members of the British public as we saw with the 2016 EU referendum.

  • Borders are not illiberal. We can have a restricted/limited border policy which we enforce without being regressive.

  • Taking back control of our borders was one of the most powerful messages of the Leave campaign.

    I thought having effective border controls was a LibDem policy, before the referendum and are necessary regardless of Leave/Remain. Hence here is an opportunity to appeal to all voters and not just to those who voted Remain.

    numbers count
    Yes, they do indeed, as we saw with the mass exodus of people from Syria etc. their numbers were such that they overwhelmed both the local resident community and their country. (Here in the UK, you only need to look at unexpected events such as the aftermath of the Glenfell tower fire, to see just how few people requiring immediate assistance for our systems to struggle to cope.) So if we are to avoid “state collapse” ourselves; and thus be unable to offer any effective assistance, we have to take some very hard decisions about how we cater for migrants and the extent to which the ‘sovereign’ state is truly sovereign in today’s world.

    What is clear to me, is that the LibDem debate on migration needs to move beyond the simplistic migration/immigration good stance that has often been outed on this site, I hope this paper sparks that debate.

  • As a liberal I believe everyone should live where they choice to live. However I think it would not be good if 90% of the UK population lived in London and south-east England, therefore I want my party to have policies to reduce if not eliminate the economic situations which drive people to migrate to London and south-east England. Therefore on the international level we should have policies to reduce if not eliminate the social and economic situations which drive people to migrate to the UK.

    As a UK political party we have a duty to consider the well-being of UK citizens and this I think means we have to control the number of people migrating into the UK. If we don’t have the people to do certain skilled jobs then we need to invest to train people to do these roles as William Wallace suggests so we don’t need to recruit from outside of our country in the future. Should we consider a levy on businesses that employ skilled workers from aboard to finance or part-finance training people already here to have the necessary skills?

  • David Allen 5th Mar '18 - 4:38pm

    “Almost all of us would prefer to live in a world in which borders were open”

    Strongly disagree. That’s an extreme libertarian position, and like most libertarian positions, it would promote gross inequality as a consequence of untramelled globalisation and the hegemony of the free market. As William Wallace rightly points out, massive immigration pressures will hit the Western world as climate change bites. There are no easy answers. However, accepting all those smart and rich enough to flee early, and then slamming down the shutters on all the rest, is surely a terrible answer. It is, of course, exactly what Europe has done with the Syrian refugees. Future migration pressures will probably make the Syrian problem look like small beer.

    Open borders would be great if we had global equality between nations. But we don’t. So, opening borders merely helps a few smart people from poor countries get richer, while those left behind (in both the emigration and the immigration nations) get poorer.

    Given our imperfect world, the best compromise would be free movement within Europe, rigid barriers around Europe, and policies to boost “developing” countries, so that in the longer term, their economies might rise, to the point at which it might be possible to take those rigid barriers down.

    We are a very long way away from that ideal. The Brexiteers hope to “save” Britain from a million or so East European migrants. But they will leave us totally unprepared for a future mass invasion by a multi-million army of starving Asians – Prepared to die to get to the West, because certain death will face them if they stay where they are.

  • Interesting article.
    I suspect Tony Blair’s real folly was believing that Britain was a bit like America because he grew up on rock and roll. So he tried go for the ” give us your poor and huddled masses” thing and grafted the nation of immigrants rhetoric on to a Britain that is not actually made up of huge states and vast open spaces. It’s a cramped wet place, with tiny houses, narrow streets, often grumpy awkward people and a history shaped by feudalism and class conflict rather than by the civil rights movement. I think generally speaking parts of the progressive centre are prone to trying to force the square peg American politics into the triangular hole of Britain and are as hung up on an inflated global vision as their right-wing counterparts.

  • John Marriott 5th Mar '18 - 5:52pm

    If you want to come and work or study in the UK you should have a job to come to or a place of study at a College etc.

    Instead of freedom of movement for people, why not freedom of movement for labour/study? I reckon a few more EU members might support that. After all, despite what they say, it was immigration wot done it for Remain!

  • @John Marriott

    To claim benefits – UK, EU or non-EU you need to pass the “habitually resident” test.

    I suspect of non-working EU citizens it has mostly been older British citizens who have been moving to sunnier climates in other EU countries rather than the other way around.

    It is odd but the concern was the “offshoring” of jobs. I appreciate that people don’t see it that way but if there are jobs to be done then having them done in the UK creates more jobs as people spend their money in the economy here.

    It is odd that post-Brexit I will be able to move 30 miles one way to a job but not 30 miles another way. As @Michael BG says probably “immigration” between parts of the UK is a greater pressure on infrastructure – just get a train into London!

  • I suspect the route of the dilemma is that there is a tendency in liberal circles to view the immigration debate as an argument with Right wing forces, when really there is just not much support for the mass movement of people. Thus the conflict is not with the Far Right but with a population that in survey after survey delivers a very clear majority (over 70%) in favour of reductions and more controls.
    My argument would be that rather than shifting rightwards or constantly trying to fight an unwinnable battle for hearts and minds, just stop emphasising the issue and move on to attractive locally relevant policies. Housing, education, services and so on are the vote winners. Telling people off because they’re not as global/internationalist as you would like them to be doesn’t really work and nor does pretending they are when they plainly are not. People talk about shrinking nature of the world, but the average experience of the alleged “global village” is a couple of weeks holiday a year and buying stuff over the internet. In some households it’s not even that.

  • Katharine Pindar 6th Mar '18 - 12:27am

    Why doesn’t the Consultation Paper mention the need to invest more in skills and training here then, to lessen the need to bring in skilled workers, William? It’s to be hoped the consultation process will add that, along with the need to expand technical training and apprenticeships, the more so as the digital economy and the increasing use of robots makes the demand for highly skilled workers ever greater. Perhaps, as Michael BG asks, there should be a levy on businesses which employ skilled workers from abroad to contribute to costs of training workers at home.

    But, on another tack, I think Glenn that you suggest the British people are more inward-looking than they actually are. Not only can most people be persuaded of the value of ‘some’ workers from the EU and beyond to do jobs in the NHS, care services and agriculture, construction and the hospitality industry, but it seems to me perceptions often do go beyond thinking of a two-week holiday in some sunny island. Rather, I think many people regard the Continent as ‘our’ playground, and continue to like having our own free movement in and out of countries there, whether for leisure, buying a small property, or for work. Just look at the crowds who go abroad to European and World Cup football matches, and the deep interest people have in bringing skilled players from all over the world and retaining the best European managers to run the top English football clubs. There is a powerful emotional association there which could be drawn out to encourage open attitudes, both to staying in Europe and welcoming immigrants.

  • Katharine.
    I’m just pointing to the consistent very high majority (in the last BBC survey of attitudes it was 78% and even a Channel 4 survey put it at close to 70%) for immigration controls over decades. I don’t think it’s just Britain either. I never said there was no acceptance of immigration. Nor am I saying the public is right, but they are a political reality. I do suspect the idea of “open” societies is on the utopian side and that there is an element of disconnect involved in most of the political debate of the issue. The main thrust of my argument is that the liberal case is not a vote grabber and thus really the subject should be downplayed in favour of things that are. In the past I supported the open borders approach, but I now think there are serious political consequences to pushing policies with little popular support. To me it’s about working with the reality of the electorate rather than getting ideologically bogged down .

  • Arnold Kiel 6th Mar '18 - 10:58am

    Lord William makes the important and very strangely disregarded point that the real migration challenge is not EU free movement. This “problem” boils down to a low and shrinking number of poor, unskilled East Europeans, who nevertheless make a positive contribution to the UK economy, and are, in many cases, returning home at some point.

    Accepting the need for immigration for demographic purposes, it could be argued that the attractiveness of the UK to EU immigrants in the last decade represented an enviable “positive selection” compared with the profile of immigrants entering the EU at its southern borders.

    The real dilemma are 1,2 Billion Africans (twice that 2050), with insufficient prospects for liberty, safety and prosperity. Historically, borders and laws never prevented migration from happening, just logistics.

    I have read a lot of flimsy justifications (including the ethically irrelevant majority view) for “control of our borders” in this thread. When discussing this moral dilemma, I always make it personal: assume a smelly homeless person ringing at your door saying: I am cold and hungry, my clothes are filthy, and I haven’t had a shower for weeks. You have a bedroom (or a sofa) free, the heating on, hot running water, a wardrobe full of things you rarely wear, and a full fridge. Please let me in and help me.

    How would we (and I am certainly not excuding myself) justify rejecting him or her? The personal equivalent to “this is my nationstate I am a citizen of, and we have the right and obligation to control our borders, and reject whom we do not wish” would be this:

    “I worked hard at school, got good grades, and therefore landed a good job that allowed me to have this nice heated house with an extra bed and a full fridge. This is therefore for me alone to enjoy”. Sounds a lot less convincing, doesn’t it? But it is the same logic, and therefore no worse than the national border-control justification.

    I have no solution to this dilemma, but we should start by acknowledging that widespread rejection of immigration or refugees is based on our desire for maximum comfort, and has very little ethical justification.

  • Arnold,
    I strongly suspect most people might offer said homeless person a cup of tea and sandwich, but not let them in the house or at best let them have shower and maybe ring some sort of authority to get them help. I doubt that many would say “come in you can stay until you’re fixed up, there’s room for plenty and by the way tell your pals”. I also suspect the main dilemma is between reality and wishful thinking.

  • William Wallace 6th Mar '18 - 11:44am

    Thanks for constructive comments. Part of our dilemma is that Western Europe and North America are almost the only regions that are open to immigrants and refugees. Japan, rich and with a declining population, is deeply resistant; rich Arab states recruit non-citizens only for menial jobs, without rights. So the desperate flow will head to wards us -though many will be stuck in camps on the way. And not only from Africa. Bangla Desh is overcrowded already; so are parts of the Punjab. Young people from there hope to join (or marry) their cousins in the West – which is another delicate issue.

  • John Barrett 6th Mar '18 - 12:03pm

    Apart from the many global inequalities, which are increasing year on year, the pressure on those in countries without many of the daily aspects of life in the UK and much of Europe we have grown up to accept as the norm, such as access to health, education, housing, water, food and a social security system, which might not be perfect, but is much better than in many other places. The pressure to come to the UK will no doubt increase in the years to come, as the impact of climate change and instability in some regions increases.

    At home, increasing levels of education will also reduce the number of people willing to take on what many consider as “menial” jobs and the pressure from employers who need to fill such vacancies and from other employers who require more highly skilled employees from abroad, will all add to the pressure for more immigration.

    In the unequal world we all live in, saying “Almost all of us would prefer to live in a world in which borders were open” is not going to make the party look like it connects with the electorate. We might like to live in a perfect world with no war, inequality, hunger or famine where everyone has free access to health education and a social security system, but that’s not how it is.

    We need to be seen as a party which has a fair immigration policy, but also recognises the reality of the world today and the pressures of increasing immigration in the years to come.

  • The older I get, and the more arguments I see for border controls and Keeping Them Out and Making Sure We Keep What’s Ours and all the other blinkered selfish things that migrationphobes trot out, the more I am in favour of dropping all borders and having done with it.

    No person is more or less of a person because of where they happen to have been born, and who am I to deny them a safe place to live?

  • William Fowler 6th Mar '18 - 1:13pm

    With 300-odd left leaning MP’s, often with two homes, you would have thought they would have taken a lead by taking in one or two rough sleepers each. UK has been extremely generous to ex-empire countries re immigration but the country is rather full now and would benefit from rolling back the population to a more sustainable level rather than letting more folks in… no idea how that could be achieved, though.

    Arguably, taking doctors and nurses from African countries is a terrible thing to do to those countries as they need them more than us. Many think Africa will be the next big growth area for the world and post brexit we can help by doing free trade with the countries and finding a way to switch AID money into helping start micro businesses, so the money rolls from the bottom up and perhaps becomes self-sustaining.

    The big horror will be with a virus like Ebola if it mutates to an untreatable state, then you will get a real mass movement of people! You would have riots in the UK if they were let in.

  • Peter Hirst 6th Mar '18 - 1:15pm

    Thanks William for this comprehensive synopsis of the issues around immigration. I now will not feel quite as bad if I don’t get to the Consultation on Friday. It is definitely best dealt with from within the eu. It is a matter of balance between supply and demand and idealism and pragmatism. We’re not going to satisfy everyone or indeed anyone. We have the advantage of being an island and more resources must go into our border control. Illegal immigration must be prevented. I’m sorry not to be more helpful.

  • Chris Lewcock 6th Mar '18 - 1:51pm

    A very useful article. Just a couple of (perhaps awkward) additional thoughts to throw into the pot.
    Encouraging skilled workers to come from lower income countries may drain those countries of the necessary skills to make a go of it themselves.
    It appears to be the case that the most likely “economic” migrants are those who have had some education and developed a skill which allows them (and their families) to raise the money so they can afford to travel and gives them a skill they can sell on arrival. Unless aid to educational and health outcomes is accompanied by well-paid employment an outward flow of talent is inevitable?

  • Nigel Jones 6th Mar '18 - 4:06pm

    A very good article, except for two points; first that we would like ideally free movement across the whole world. No way can we envisage anytime soon totally uncontrolled movement of people. Stating that as even an aim is what makes so many people fearful. Neither is lack of control in the interests of those who migrate.
    As regards the EU, it is true that potentially we can exercise some sensible control over immigration from around the world by working together. The problem of Calais may well have been on our side of the tunnel if we had not been in the EU. The recent sudden experience has however, shown the EU needs to do it better, but if Brexit happens then we really will have to invest a great deal in controlling this on our own.

  • Katharine Pindar 6th Mar '18 - 8:26pm

    @ Glenn: working with ‘the reality of the electorate’ suggests it is fixed and unchanging. Surely not necessarily so! My point is that we should be using that useful concept of ‘nudge’ to modify perceptions, by for instance keeping pointing out how much EU citizens are needed to work here, and gently mentioning general approval of our welcome to European footballers and ease of getting to matches on the Continent.

    Also mentioned above, “rolling back the population to a more sustainable level” would hopefully be considered by most contributors here as being as illiberal in intent as meaningless in conception. But as to the alarms over possible huge future migrations from Africa, let us not forget the UN Development Goals, and the part that the greater education and empowerment of women can contribute to slowing population growth and enhancing economic development in poorer countries.

  • Katharine.
    The nudge argument as been going on for years and it hasn’t really worked.

    I that that I may simply be a very bad liberal. I mainly like the bits about censorship and localism. I don’t really support internationalism as I suspect it of being utopian, thus doomed to end in disappointment and attempts to bypass inconvenient national democratic structures. I long ago came to the conclusion that populism is mostly the result of implementing/promoting unpopular policies and forgetting that eventually people get to vote. I think the pro immigration argument mainly consists of pieties and an almost religious belief in it as an objective moral good. Again a kind of utopianism, hence the righteous indignation. But I also think it’s perfectly reasonable to make the case and tend to like the people making it more than their opponents. I find the same thing with religion. I tend like religious people, but I’m still an atheist.

  • @Jennie re: “The older I get…”

    I take it you live your life by this principle and so don’t lock your front door and positively encourage people to move into your house, if they think it will provide them with a safe place to live?

  • @Katharine Pindar

    by for instance keeping pointing out how much EU citizens are needed to work here
    No the UK doesn’t ‘need’ foreign workers, just that due to poor government and management, we have made our economy dependent on a constant supply of foreign workers.
    Remember, we currently have a huge pool of economically inactive residents in this country. Additionally, due to the raising of the pension age, over the next circa 15 years we have effectively increased the size of the UK working population by the best part of 25%. Now tell me why we ‘need’ foreign workers…
    Note, this isn’t to say that foreign workers aren’t welcome, or that there aren’t benefits from having some level of foreign workers in the country, just that the Libdems need to get away from the idea that the UK ‘needs’ foreign nationals to have unconstrained access to the UK.

    “rolling back the population to a more sustainable level” would hopefully be considered by most contributors here as being as illiberal in intent as meaningless in conception.
    Well you do understand that many of the environmental targets the UK has committed to achieving were predicated on a circa 1998 level of population?
    Over-population – particularly in the high-consumption developed world is the elephant in the room, as William Fowler acknowledges, we don’t really have a plan to address this one – and history provides plenty of evidence of policy failure, however, address it within the next few decades we must…
    Interestingly, if the economic projections of Brexit are correct, then the UK can happily support a net migration of circa 300,000 per annum for 20+ years and see zero impact on per capita GDP, but a positive impact on the UK’s environmental balance sheet.

    let us not forget the UN Development Goals, and the part that the greater education and empowerment of women can contribute to slowing population growth
    Don’t disagree, and I fully support such work – hence my earlier observation about ‘sovereignty’. However, let us not delude ourselves about the delivery timescales for this programme and think it will have much impact on population growth and migration pressures within the next 20 years.

  • Has anyone ever considered that the point of a liberal and open immigration policy is to make a country attractive to the kind of highly skilled, highly mobile immigrants that every country would like to have more of? It is a statement of values, and deliberately formed to appeal to the immigrant that really has a choice of country. Why else would a country like Canada make such a big fuss about being open and liberal, but actually run an entry and points regime that is designed to restrict low skilled immigration?

  • David Allen
    “But they will leave us totally unprepared for a future mass invasion by a multi-million army of starving Asians – Prepared to die to get to the West, because certain death will face them if they stay where they are.”
    Actually Thailand is a major food exporter. No food banks here. Burma and Vietnam have increased their food production too.

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