the paradox of immigration

bergens tidende, 26 november 2007

It is quite difficult to lose 300,000 people. Unless, that is, you happen to be the British government. Last month it announced that since 1997, the increase in the number of foreign nationals working in Britain has been 1.1 million - not 800,000 as previously claimed. Then the government lost 600,000 jobs. Since 1997, it had to admit, just 2.1 million new jobs have been created, not 2.7 million as previously claimed. All of which, as critics pointed out, means that more than 50 per cent of all jobs created since Labour came to power have gone to foreigners.

The figures inevitably led to a fierce new debate on immigration. And equally inevitably they led to an auction between Labour and the Conservatives to see which party could bid for the greatest restrictions. The muddle over immigration figures certainly reveals gross official incompetence. But that is nothing new. Just this week the government was forced to admit that it had lost in the post two CDs containing the personal details of 25 million people - the latest in a series of scandals to hit this administration. But, paradoxically, the immigration figures also reveal why Britain does not need new restrictions. An extra 300,000 immigrants had come to Britain - and nobody had noticed until the government got its figures in twist. That speaks of how successful recent immigration has been, not of the problems it has caused.

Indeed the figures reveal the success, not just of immigration, but of an open door immigration policy. When eight new East European nations joined the EU in 2004, Britain decided, unlike most other EU nations, not to impose restrictions on migrants from the accession countries. Critics warned that millions of East Europeans would overwhelm Britain. In fact, some 600,000 East Europeans, mainly Poles, have arrived since 2004 - far closer to the critics' estimate than that of the government. And Britain is still standing. If anything, the new migrants have kept Britain standing by picking crops, cleaning streets and building houses.

The Polish experience has demolished one of the key arguments for tight immigration controls: the claim that, with lax controls, the whole world would simply walk into Britain. Britain is rich, much of the world is desperately poor. Open the borders, runs the argument, and the hordes would descend upon us. In reality, people who emigrate tend to work, if they are able to, for a period, earn money and return home.

Ironically it is not an open border, but tight immigration controls, that make people move in large numbers and settle. In the 1950s, when Britain had a virtual open door, many of the initial immigrants were single men who expected to return home after a short time working here. Once the government imposed immigration controls they had no choice but to stay here and bring their families over. Open borders allow people to move in and out according to need. Closed borders compel people to settle, even if they have no desire to. The figure of 600,000 East European migrants since 2004 is actually misleading, because many of them, perhaps most of them, have returned home. Again, we do not know the exact figures because of official incompetence with statistics.

OK, say the critics, that may be so, but the immigrants who do come deprive indigenous workers of jobs. Wrong again. Migrants don't take jobs from locals, they do jobs that locals won't do or can't do. And by so doing, they actually create jobs by boosting the economy - as a government report published last month revealed. The report also showed that, far from depressing wages, immigration has helped raise the wage levels of local workers and that immigrants pay more in taxes than they take out in benefits.

But what about pressures on resources, such as housing, transport and hospital services? It is true that there is a crisis in Britain in the provision of housing, health and transport. But it is a crisis created by underinvestment not by immigration. You only have to look at who staffs British hospitals, drives the buses or works on building sites to realise that without immigrants the crisis in all these areas would be far worse.

But Britain is an overcrowded island. Immigrants boost the British population by nearly 200,000 a year - that's two million in a decade. How will they all fit in? Quite easily. Just 8 per cent of Britain is settled. The rest is either farmland or wilderness. If 60 million Britons can live on 8 per cent of the land, housing an additional 2 million is hardly going to use up all our green spaces.

The paradox of immigration is that despite its success, both policy makers and the public continue to view it as a problem. That is because the debate about immigration has never really been about immigrants at all. Rather their presence has helped crystalise already existing social anxieties - and at different times there have been different anxieties.

In the 1950s, politicians worried that immigrants would settle in this country and thereby undermine a racialised sense of Britishness. Today many worry that immigrants won't settle, but will move in and out, and so undermine social cohesion. They also worry that those that do settle will take up too much space and leave too big a carbon footprint. In reality, of course, immigrants are no more responsible for social fragmentation or environmental degradation now than they were for undermining national identity half a century ago. In both cases they have simply become symbols for wider social anxieties. Social fragmentation and the squeeze on resources are both issues that clearly need addressing. But they will not be addressed by scapegoating immigrants. All we will do is strangle one of Britain's success stories - and make those other problems even worse.