The public discussion on immigration in the UK today seems to revolve around two main themes. One of these is the question of whether migration is good for Britain in economic terms. The second is about British identity, and whether it will survive in a country which has seen a substantial increase in the number of foreign people coming to live and work in the country.
It is easy to see why these are issues which need to be considered and discussed, but less obvious that they will ever provide the sort of definitive, clear-cut answers which politicians and voters seem to require. However more might be achieved by asking questions about what migration means for the world we live in and why it seems to be generating such movement of people across frontiers.
Is poverty driving migration?
There is a very common perception that migration happens because a lot of very poor people want to come to regions of the world where they can enjoy a higher standard of living. The simple version of this viewpoint holds that they have no moral claim on access to this better way of life because they did not contribute to it and in coming to wealthier countries here they would only squeeze out the people who did. A tough immigration policy is therefore morally justified on the grounds that it excludes people who are hoping to obtain a free ride to the good life, without working for it in their own countries.
But there are good reasons to question these propositions and to look at the situation in a very different way.
The first dispute is whether the majority of people who migrate today really are ‘the poor’ in any absolute sense of suffering and hardship at all. Statistics on who migrants are tends to support the view that they are a fairly well-educated group of people in the main, coming from countries where an education is the mark of the middle classes rather than the very poor.
Evidence presented by Dustmann and Theodoropolous found that, on average, first generation black minority ethnic migrants have 0.7% more years of full-time education than their native counterparts. Looking at the situation across the EU, Kahanec and Zimmermann reach similar conclusions. They report that the share of skilled people amongst migrant communities in both the EU15 and EU25 is higher than that of natives. Heidrick and Struggles’ ‘Mapping Global Talent’ surveys show even more pronounced skill levels amongst some groups of migrants to the United States, with 49% of Africans coming to the country holding a college-level qualification.
Figures like these provide the strong hint that immigration in the opening decades of the 21st century has something to do with the gains which have been obtained from development in the countries which are the starting point for these movements of people. More than one-half of the graduates in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) come from countries which 20 years ago would have been described as ‘under-developed’. India alone turns out a half million engineering graduates a year, in a country where only 12% of young people go to university. By 2025 this is set to rise to 30%, creating the likelihood that from that time onwards the great majority of educated young people looking for careers in the technology sectors which will drive future growth will come from India and other countries which are similarly increasing the volume of STEM graduates.
These are highly mobile occupations, with qualified people having opportunities to move into the gaps in the labour market created by the demand for workers with a good background in science and technology. A proportion of this will be for people operating at the high added value end of the labour market, as top scientists and engineers. But even more will be absorbed into jobs requiring basic technical competence to perform well in jobs which require such knowledge as a soft skill.
No longer outsiders
The point here is that the pattern and shape of today’s migration does not come from outsiders who have played no part in creating the wealth of which they want a share. On the contrary, these are the sons and daughters of the people who were obliged to order their lives in accordance with the market principles which rolled out of the Washington Consensus which market the triumph of the West at the end of the Cold War.
Since that date, the farmers, workers and professionals who had once inhabited something called the ‘Third World’ have lived on exactly the same planet as the citizens of advanced countries, contributing to their market economies and witnessing the same transfers of income and wealth between sectors, countries and classes as anyone who had lived all their lives in any part of Great Britain.
But people might ask why this leads to migration. If populations in the developing countries are becoming more skilled and integrated into the global market, why aren’t they able to get the better lives they want in their own countries?
The answer is that some do, but not everyone. Economic development across the globe might now take place in combination with the market potential in Europe, North America or any other part of the world, but the distribution is still very uneven. Career paths for technicians and engineers who have been trained in any of the countries of Africa will get so far along the line before the realisation of their full potential puts movement to another country on the agenda. For many – the majority even – this will mean a period spent living in another emerging country – as ‘South-South’ migration develops a momentum which even now is outstripping ‘South-North’.
The effect of these inter-regional migrations will drive economic growth for generations to come, putting the old industrial countries in the paradoxical position of falling behind in the race to stay competitive as innovation and growth increasingly comes from the dynamism of emerging regions.
Critical global perspective
So, there’s the reason why a global perspective is so important. We should be working hard to bring it into the immigration discussion with at least as big an influence over the formation of policy as is currently been given to current efforts to quantify the economic need for migration and the impact this has on the sense of ethnic identity of citizens. The immigrants can no longer be properly conceived of as poor outsiders who want a share of what “we” have diligently built up for “ourselves”. They are dynamic creators and builders of the global wealth which we will want a share of today and tomorrow to avoid the fate of eventually being the poorest of the poor ourselves.
The thing that really has to be borne in mind here is that migrant people across the planet have cottoned onto these fundamental truths far ahead of the governments and citizens of the old capitalist nations. They are well aware of the fact that they are not here to beg for handouts, but to play their part as the active, empowered actors and citizens of the new global realities where, we must hope, wealth is more equally shared across all nations and sectors of society. When they are obliged to consider the impact which immigration control regimes have on their ability to participate and benefit from the world they are making, they know that they have been put on the rough side of what are often terrible injustices.
The demand to end the inequalities and unfairness of today’s version of global society will grow even stronger in the years to come. Once it permeates the people – the migrants – who contribute most as productive workers to our modern world, it will become unstoppable.
It would be best get all this global perspective stuff into the heart of our current discussions about immigration policy now, without any further delay, and save ourselves a lot of trouble in the future.