Immigration regulation doesn’t just divide flows of people into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ migrants. It also disempowers tens of thousands and leaves them prey to brutal traffickers and exploiters.
Two news reports during the past week ought to help groups concerned about the rights of migrants reorientate the public conversation away from the image of the ‘bad migrant’ and more in the direction of recognising how the pressures of the recession are meshing with cumbersome and bureaucratic immigration controls to push more people towards positions of extreme vulnerability.
The first was the item on the Newsnight programme broadcast on BBC2 on Thursday night reporting on the position of Bulgarian and Romanian workers in the hotel industry. Legally entitled to live in the UK but only able to access employment through channels and regulations of byzantine complexity, the report set out the depths of the often brutal, callous exploitation that this group of EU citizens were finding themselves in.
The second was covered in a report in the Observer newspaper on Sunday dealing with the “rise in ‘slavery’ trafficking” of homeless people. Drawing on the experiences of the homeless charities Thames Reach and the Passage Day Centre the report explains how people fallen on hard times become the victims of ruthless slave gangs who are out to extract long hours of labour in return for nothing more than a basic meal and rudimentary lodgings.
In the studio discussion that followed the Newsnight report, Jack Dromey, the chair of the All-Party Parliament Group on Migration, argued that the last government had begun to equip itself with the capacity to fight against labour exploitation when it set up the Gangmasters Licensing Authority in 2006.
This had the potential to bring proper regulation to the industry which provides casual labour to employers, but the nerve of ministers to tackle the issue appears to have failed during the following years and the GLA has never been allowed to expand its remit beyond workers in the agriculture, horticulture and shellfish sectors.
The two reports concerned migrants who were mainly from the EU countries, including Bulgarians and Romanians who will have to wait until January 2014 before the transitional restrictions on their right to work in the UK are finally lifted. But there is evidence that other nationalities are being sucked into labour exploitation scams which take advantage of the hopes which many people have across the world to better their circumstances but who find that their plans are obstructed by the horrendously complex regulations.
Attention has been drawn in recent weeks to the predicament of hundreds – possibly thousands – of migrants who have been brought to the UK through the operation of labour exploitation scams and who have ended up in the west London boroughs. These rackets have their beginning points in the towns and villages of the Indian Punjab, involving young men promised jobs in the construction industry abroad. Promising safe, legal, migration for a hefty fee, the migration trails involve typically involve flights into Russia and then long overland journeys through Ukraine into Central Europe.
A portion of these trafficking routes end up in London, where there are opportunities to work for the large number of small firms which provide building services to still prosperous middle class property owners in the capital. The hours are long, with 60 hours a week plus being regular reported, and the wage rates modest. The story of the people who have been sucked into this cynical industry has been told with disturbing realism in the Indian film, Shores Far Away.
The hardships experienced by these migrants is particularly harsh on those who are not able to find all the work they need and who cannot pay the often exorbitant rents needed to secure accommodation. From the often reported phenomenon of ‘beds in sheds’ the most vulnerable in this group end up joining the ranks of homeless rough sleepers and in this position are at risk of being caught up in raids that involves run by the UK Border Agency.
Politicians seek popular support
Efforts on the part of politicians and the civil service authorities to establish popular support for their policies involves making the case that immigration can easily be divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ types. There is encouragement to be got for this approach from opinion poll findings which shows that people are prepared to make a distinction between groups like highly skilled migrants and international students, who are seen as providing a clear economic benefit to the country. The answer to the vexed question of how to win support for immigration policy can see obvious: we simply have a system which brings in the highly valued people everyone feels positive about, and excluded the rest.
There are signs that the two centre and centre left parties are moving towards approaches founded on these principles in their attempt to square the circle of immigration’s importance to the economy but lack of unpopularity with the electorate. At a fringe meeting organised by the British Future think tank at the Lib Dem conference last week, leading party members called for the party to be prepared to emphasis the aspects of its policy that talk about ‘toughness’ towards ‘illegal’ immigrants in order to get beyond, as Bradford East MP David Ward put it, the ‘wishy-washy’ reputation they were stuck with at the last general election.
Similarly, Labour’s current policy reassessment seems to be hinting at a show of hardness towards migrants from the next wave of EU accession countries, in the next few years citizens of Croatia but possibly in the near future people from Turkey as well, limiting their access to full free movement for employment for a full seven years.
Yet we know that ‘hard’ policies intended to placate the anxieties of sections of voters do not produce the well-regulated flows of migration for which the authorities crave. The movement of people across frontiers is an immensely complex phenomenon which doesn’t easily separate into streams of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ migrants. What is created when this is attempted is a series of hoops and hurdles which are generally negotiable by relatively privileged groups, but which function as lures and baits to others. The immigration of people outside the elites is not deterred by restrictive regulations, but the cost of achieving the goals which people set for themselves inexorably rises, creating opportunities for profit for agencies which work to facilitate movement across borders.
People seeking power through elections have a vested interest in believing that there are relatively simple solutions to the range of issues which exist in modern society. Immigration is one of these areas which would be served better if the naivety of so much of the political mainstream was ditched and deeper thought given instead to the complex and multi-faceted nature of migration in the world of the early 21st century.