What can be expected for migration in 2012?

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By Don Flynn (MRN)
The start of a fresh New Year is a time for making predictions as well as resolutions. Resolutions are a bit personal, but predictions aren’t worth much unless you have the nerve to state them openly. So here’s my take on what challenges are in store for the world of immigration in 2012.

Firstly, the coming year will be the last chance the coalition government has to declare itself fully in control of movements across borders, before its narrative breaks down in 2013 and following years. Home Secretary Teresa May will continue to work hard to offer raw red meat to the backbenchers of her own party with evidence that security at air and sea ports and the Eurostar stations is tight. This will be achieved at the cost of long delays and enormous queues, as we saw at Heathrow last summer, with tourists suffering in their thousands as they struggle to clear passport checks.

Olympics trial?
The Home Secretary’s first difficulty this year will come in the form of the London Olympics. Around half a million visitors are expected in the capital during the course of the games, although the expected swell is likely to reduce normal summer tourist numbers as London’s hotels and public transport are dominated by Olympic visitors.

Even so, the UK leisure industry will be disappointed if there are much less than 2 million overseas visitors this year. Many high-end retailers are being propped up by the continued enthusiasm of EU and BRIC nationals for the UK shopping experience. Companies selling UK holidays are also hoping that the Olympic boom will lead to continued business into the future.

It will be interesting to see what happens at the UK’s choked ports of arrival. What effect will Mrs May’s demand for thorough checks on all arrivals have on the perception that the UK is a good place to come for a visit and to spend some money? Border guards will likely continue to struggle to deliver on these demands. Deep cuts in UKBA staffing, which amount to 10% of all full-time personnel in 2011, will fall by a further two thousand during 2012. All this points to significant pressures on delivery during the coming months.

Stumbling over net migration
But if the Home Secretary again struggles over UK border security, expect her immigration minister, Damian Green, to do his level best to meet the other benchmark of government policy success or failure: the vexed issue of net migration, which the Conservatives want to see brought down to the tens of thousands by 2015.

There is currently little evidence that this target will be met, although net migration seems to be on a downward trend. In its latest review of immigration policy, ippr reports that overall net migration is likely to have reduced from 250,000 in 2010 to 220,000 in 2011. They estimate that falling net migration will continue, mainly due to economic difficulties and increasing unemployment, hitting around 180,000 in 2012.

Students and families
Mr Green is this year hoping to offer Parliament evidence of success by further reducing international student numbers. A drop in student numbers (down by 11,000 during 2011) is already being achieved by new English language requirements for those coming to study. In the pipeline are much stricter prohibitions on international students working to support their studies and bans on them being accompanied by spouses and dependent children.

This will happen at a time when other countries hoping to increase their share of the lucrative international student market are making conditions of entry and study easier. Expect to see perhaps another 10,000 shaved off the UK international student figures this year, creating more difficulties for universities and colleges and strengthening opposition within the education sector.

Family migration figures are likely to be hit by government plans to increase the income requirement for people sponsoring the entry of overseas dependents. If MAC recommendations are followed, a very high proportion – possibly as much as 50% – of people currently able to bring family members to join them would be prevented from doing so. This migration involves a high proportion of young people, with earners in the family at an early stage in their careers and consequently on relatively low incomes. Further, it is likely to discriminate against families joining sponsors in regions other than the higher wage areas of South East England.

There is a row brewing here, as the education sector is obliged to come to terms with the fact that the deal on international students they were prepared to, weakly, applaud back in march last year, is proving to be a debilitating drain on efforts to keep colleges and universities operating in difficult, finacial strapped, times. Expect this one to rumble on right the way across the year.

International scene…
Other challenges loom on the horizon in 2012. We are expecting the UK to find its immigration policies being opposed with more force internationally by countries which, over the course of the next decade, will be far more influential in deciding the shape of global trade and commerce. Of particular interest will be the outcome of the EU-India Free Trade Agreement (FTA) which is due to be concluded sometime before the summer.

The EU-India FTA includes the movement of workers and professionals involved in the provision of services within its remit, with the Indian government calling for the EU to admit up to 40,000 Indian nationals who could work within 25 listed economic sectors for periods of up to 12 months. Currently, the UK government is more hesitant than other EU partners to agree to this, on the grounds that a sizeable proportion of the Indian migrants would be likely to come to the UK. However, prolonging negotiations with India over this issue would be very unwelcome at a time when the EU should be securing connections with one of the fastest growing economies in the world.

There is evidence that at least some of the countries with relatively high growth economies – like India, China, Mexico and Morocco – are looking for international fora in which they can set out their grievances on the ways in which the immigration politics of the countries of the global North are choking off the participation of their elites in the international business scene. There is a development agenda wrapped up in this argument, and quite possibly one which reolves around the issues of climate and other environmental change and the role which migration is likly to play in building survivability and resiliance into stressed regions. It is just possible that this year’s Global Forum on Migration and Development, planned to take place in Mauritius will provide the arena in which these critical issues can be aired.

….and in Parliament
Finally, on the Parliamentary scene, we need to watch the opposition parties to see how they respond to the political controversies which continue to dog this area of policy.

On one hand they might choose to throw in their lot with populist currents who think that anti-immigration stances will return them to popularity and possible electability. The arguments to be developed there range across anti-Europeanism, national market protectionism, ‘British jobs for British workers’, ‘they are taking all our social security benefits’, and so on.

There is plenty of evidence that these views are shared by a fraction of MPs on the opposition benches and we can expect them to become more vocal in 2012 as they make the nationalistic case for immigration restrictions. The problem is that these are views held with equal strength on the right wing of the Parliamentary spectrum. The net result of any political debate governed by anti-immigrant reasoning is a bidding war which twists the conversation ever further to the far right.

However we can expect to see another approach, which also has comes in conservative and liberal versions, gaining ground. This is based on the frank acknowledgment that immigration is a permanent feature of modern day life and that policies of a broadly progressive character would seek to cut with its grain rather than run against it. An expanding group of stakeholders from business, education, public services and beyond will continue to draw Parliamentarians into more serious discussion about the future of immigration policy in the coming year. It is likely that support for this approach will be strengthened by the clear connections between progressive immigration policies and measures designed to end austerity and return the economy to growth.

As we move closer to the general election promised in May 2015, and the near-inevitable outcome of the government failing to meet its stated objective of bringing net migration down to the tens of thousands, then a powerful public voice setting out all the reasons why this is not such a bad thing will be critical to changing the tone of the public discussion.

If we see this pole of mainstream opinion emerging strongly during the course of 2012 then it will be the most significant development on the immigration front by far, and one that will encourage hope for the battles over policy issues and the rights of migrants in the future.

So, I’ve got all this down in my diary for 2012 as the things to look out for. Be good to have yur views on what also needs to be added to this list. Happy New Year everyone!

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