Managing migration

ANOTHER week, another good news story from the UK Conservatives. It can’t last, so we may as well enjoy this fleeting experience. The party is dropping its hardline policies on immigration. Instead it is to consult ethnic minorities before drawing up a new policy, and the first such meeting is being held with a group of Muslims in Coventry. The new aim is apparently to extol the benefits of migration.

By Jenni Russell

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Published: Tue 11 Jul 2006, 9:40 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:43 PM

While it is hard to believe that the Tory party as a whole can back such a shift, a change in the rhetoric from the top might free other politicians to be both more honest and more inspiring about what migration means for this country. The fact that they are not doing so is illustrated by the startling change in one statistic. In 1997, a Mori poll found that only 3 per cent of the population thought that immigration and race relations were among the most important national issues. By 2001, that was 14 per cent.

The growth in such unease is not, of course, just the politicians’ fault. It’s a media failure too. Or, possibly, a media success, given the glee with which sections of it attack anyone who wants to come here and isn’t both white and rich. But what it does indicate is a real political problem. On the one side there is the relentlessly negative portrayal by the rightwing press. On the other is the bland rhetoric of the kind we hear so much of when we are attempting to win Olympic bids, or calm people after terrorist threats —the marvellously-diverse-multicultural-city stuff. Politicians are shameless in switching between whichever message they think voters would like to hear.

If politicians took time to analyse the forces behind immigration, they would have to acknowledge that immigration is both vital to our society and inevitable. But they would also have to accept publicly that its costs and its benefits are very unevenly spread, and that we don’t do enough to ensure that the people who are most affected by it, either as immigrants or as hosts, can manage the change being forced upon them.

Migration has become an unstoppable global force. Just as capital restlessly hunts the globe, opening a plant here and closing a factory there as it searches for the highest returns, so people follow in its wake, looking for the jobs they no longer have at home.

Attempts at barricades against them do not work. Between 1993 and 2004, in an attempt to stop illegal immigrants crossing into the US from Mexico, Congress tripled its spending on border enforcement. The only noticeable effect was that 2,640 people died attempting to enter the country. There was no evidence that the flow of migrants slowed at all. It’s the same story in Europe, where primary immigration almost ceased 30 years ago. Yet the continent has 20 million foreign workers now, almost twice as many as there were then. They come because we have jobs available that the home-grown populations aren’t willing to take.

The truth of this is one that politicians won’t admit. They are afraid that the electorate will reject them if they admit that the flow of outsiders cannot be halted. But their attempts at control are cosmetic, and often counter-productive.

Grace is a living example of this. She came to Britain from Uganda eight years ago, fleeing the civil conflict in the north. She left behind three dependent children, and five cousins of theirs whose parents had died. Grace applied for asylum and was given working papers. She worked nights as a hospital cleaner, two afternoons a week as an unpaid hospice volunteer, and mornings as a cleaner in private homes. For four years she lived a frugal life, sharing a cheap room with two strangers, and sending all her money home. Then she was turned down for asylum. Her MP wrote a letter pointing out that Grace was now a valuable, taxpaying member of society. Her friends suggested she go underground, but she refused. She wanted to be legal. The next time she signed in with the Home Office, she was deported.

Three years later, Grace is back. She could not find a job in Kampala that could keep her children fed and in school. She wants to give them a future. When her daughter burst into tears because they could not afford her place at university, Grace gave her last £2,000 to people-smugglers. Within weeks she had a fake passport and visa, and came here as a businesswoman on holiday. She is back with her agency, under a new name. They are so desperate for good cleaners that they say they don’t care about her status. Meanwhile, Grace doesn’t pay tax, daren’t return to the hospice, and lives in fear of being found by authority.

The Home Office’s estimate is that there are half a million illegal migrants like Grace in the country, alongside the legal ones, and yet we still have a shortage of workers for low-skilled jobs. We need people like her. The contract-cleaning and catering industries are reliant on migrants, as is the NHS and the construction industry. Nor is this need short-lived. The government has been assuming that only highly skilled jobs will be needed in the future; however economic growth is predicted at both the top and bottom ends.

The difficulty politicians face is that new arrivals can often afford only the poorest parts of our cities, where they are engaged in an inevitable competition for housing and public services with people who are already deprived and struggling —and the resulting tensions aren’t just between white and black. On the whole, the liberal and business elite prefer to ignore these real difficulties, dismissing them as racism rather than as reflections of genuine problems in dealing with sudden social change.

We must think how to handle the social consequences more intelligently. To have so many uncounted people here makes it impossible for local and national authorities to respond with the services their populations need. Deporting such numbers is practically and financially impossible, at an estimated cost of £11,000 each.

Either we will have to consider an amnesty, alongside many more work permits for others abroad, or accept that we intend to do nothing about this situation because it suits the majority of us to have large numbers of unofficial workers available —cowed, undemanding and easily exploited. But if we choose the latter, we are making it even harder for recent arrivals and their host communities to adjust to and trust one another. Money, resources and imagination are needed to help us integrate.

The West has grown accustomed to treating the globe as its plaything. Yet we cannot holiday in Phuket, buy second homes in Croatia, or gloat over cheap clothes from China without accepting that the foreigners whose lives we disrupt have a right to pursue their goals too. Will politicians ever dare to tell us to grow up?

Jenni Russell is a writer, commentator and broadcaster. This article first appeared in the Guardian daily. Write to her at

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