Should net immigration to Britain rise or fall? That’s the question many British journalists have been asking party leaders this past week and it’s one that neither Labour nor the Tories are able to answer. Partly, that’s because the immigration policies of both parties are incoherent. The Conservatives have quietly ditched their commitment to reduce net immigration levels to ‘tens of thousands’ while continuing to promise to ‘reduce’ immigration, though being unable to say how, or to what numbers. Labour, as with Brexit itself, continues to face both ways, demanding freedom of movement, while denying freedom of movement.
It’s also because the question itself is incoherent. The presumption in the question is that those hostile to immigration want to reduce numbers, while those with liberal views want them to rise. The former may be true. The latter isn’t.
I don’t care if the net immigration level falls to zero, or if fewer people enter the country than leave. Current immigration rules are detestable not because they let in too few people but because of the way they treat immigrants, both those let in and those kept out.
Britain’s ‘hostile environment’ policies led to the Windrush scandal, when thousands of its own citizens of the wrong colour were denied basic rights from benefits to hospital treatment. They have caused tens of thousands to be incarcerated for indefinite periods and often facing abuse. They have resulted in deportations for ludicrous reasons and to many being returned to persecution, even death. And they have thrown up horrors such as the deaths of 39 migrants in a shipping container, which politicians are happy to blame on people smugglers, but for which their own policies also bear responsibility.
Meanwhile, the EU’s Fortress Europe policy has led to the deaths of at least 35,000 people in the Mediterranean over the past 25 years (including over a thousand this year alone), the creation of a kidnap and detention industry throughout North Africa, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, the imprisonment of tens of thousands in the most degrading of conditions in both Europe and Africa.
The question I would ask of British politicians is not‘Should immigration levels go up or down?’, but ‘Do you think that the deaths of the 39 frozen migrants, and thousands more over the years, the detention of tens of thousands held in the most degrading of conditions, the deportation of people to persecution and death, the denial of rights to its own citizens, is a price worth paying for Britain’s immigration policy?’
An even shorter version of this short article is published in the Observer, 17 November 2019.