Migration back to being a political football again

By staff writers
30 Oct 2007

Migration issues have been catapulted back into the UK media headlines again, with the two main parties vying with each other for 'get tough' policies, and the government admitting that its recent labour force statistics have been wrong.

The government's Work and Pensions minister, Peter Hain, says that the number of foreign nationals employed in Britain and Northern Ireland since 1997 is 1.1m, not the 800,000 officially recorded and given in Commons answers.

But the government's statistics gaffe still does not justify the apocalyptic tones of the current debate, say advocates for fair treatment of migrants.

They point out that the revised figures indicate that foreign labour amounts to 7 or 8 per cent of the 29 million total labour force, and that a good proportion of those concerned are married to British citizens, or from countries like the USA, Australia, New Zealand and other parts of the Commonwealth.

"Politicians will go to endless lengths to deny it, but the agitation about migration, which in terms of labour has generated some £6 billion for the UK, is about black and Eastern European people coming into Britain. They say it is 'sensitive' because they know it is about racism and prejudice, as well as global economic trends exacerbated by policies endorsed by the main Western governments," commented Simon Barrow, co-director of the think-tank Ekklesia this morning.

"Migration has been increasing worldwide due to globalization, the impact of vast inequalities, war and conflict, human rights abuses, people's search for a stable and prosperous life, a huge expansion of cross-border trade and investment, EU labour shortages, falling costs of transportation and communication, environmental degradation, and other international and regional factors", noted Barrow.

"A sane debate would be about these issues, not knee-jerk discriminatory policies on marriage, the government's decision to close the door against Bulgarians and Romanians, or the opposition's projecting net migration ten years ahead without proper regard for flux," he added.

Ekklesia points to the poineering work of places like the Development Research Centre on Migration, Globalisation and Poverty (DRC) at the University of Sussex, which aims "to promote new policy approaches that will help to maximize the potential benefits of migration for poor people, whilst minimizing its risks and costs".

The DRC is supprted by DfID, managed by a core team at the university and brings together a multidisciplinary team of researchers from Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

In the UK, says Ekklesia, there are important issues about the exploitation of migrants, particularly in the rural economy, which need to be addressed. This is a concern the ecumenical Churches' Rural Group and trade unions have been working on.

Those involved in planning and support for migrant workers locally - in areas such as Lincolnshire - point out that part of the problem is caused by the fact that, contrary to tabloid propaganda, temporary labourers do not have any claim on the support system that operates in the UK. This has put pressure on local service providers, and has been made worse by fund shortages.

The Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson Nick Clegg declared recently: "At an absolute minimum the government must now move to eliminate the ridiculous time lag which presently exists in the allocation of central government money to local authorities. How are local authorities supposed to respond to rapid population changes in their area if it takes three years for new population figures to be reflected in increased central government grants?"

Meanwhile, Conservative leader David Cameron, calling for a "grown up debate" on migration has proposed restrictions on the right of people from overseas to marry in Britain under the age of 21, in order to keep more immigrants out.

Critics say that this has the direct effect of targetting non-white immigration, something the Tories deny.

Labour immediately joined the bidding war, with a Home Office spokesperson declaring that the government was itself preparing to publish a public consultation on raising the minimum age for both parties in foreign marriages to 21. The minimum age was raised to 18 from 16 earlier this year.

The Conservative's stance has been welcomed by tabloid newspapers such as the Sun, the Mail and the Express, which have kept up a constant stream of stories about the alleged dangers of immigration over the past few years. The anti-immigration pressure group Migration Watch has also called for imposed limits.

Nick Clegg, a Lib Dem leadership candidate, has accused the government of "a mix of administrative incompetence in the Home Office and tough-talking populism in Parliament" on migration - and especially incoming labour.

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Development Research Centre on Migration, Globalisation and Poverty: http://www.migrationdrc.org/index.html

Migration Policy Institute - data: http://www.migrationinformation.org/

International Organization for Migration (inter-governmental): http://www.iom.int/jahia/jsp/index.jsp

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