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Monday, September 25, 2006

Migration One More Time

This article from Stefan Wagstyl in the Financial Times contains some interesting thoughts:

Global shifts are driving immigration. The weakening of border controls following the end of communism are, along with economic globalisation and the spread of low-cost air travel and telecommunications, all playing their part. But increased immigration has also sharpened debate about its effects. Supporters cite the benefits of low-cost workers who ease skills shortages. Critics warn of the impact on low-paid natives, public services and national identity.

The recent history of migration shows, however, that those global forces are very powerful - and hard for governments to control. The net inflow into the UK reached 235,000 in the year to mid-2005, up from 47,000 in the first year of the Blair era. The population exceeded 60m for the first time and is set to grow further, driven largely by more immigration.

Labour has sought to allay national anxieties while meeting economic needs. It has in effect kept the door open to migrants from Europe but restricted access to non-Europeans by cracking down on illegal migration and asylum. Nonetheless, the biggest inflow over the past decade has come from the Commonwealth - especially India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Britain's former African colonies. These traditional flows have been boosted by new waves not only from eastern Europe but also from north Africa and war-ravaged countries such as Somalia.

The European Union's 2004 enlargement eastward prompted a particularly sharp surge. According to the Home Office, 427,000 registered to work in the UK between May 2004 and June 2006. The total number could be as high as 600,000 once the unregistered are counted. However, east Europeans, unlike those from further afield, will not necessarily settle. As Cezary Olszewski, a Polish-born businessman who is setting up a network of financial services centres for the newcomers, says: "If you ask people how long they will stay, they say they don't know."

Migration has increased the number of foreign-born residents by 30 per cent in a decade to more than 5m - or nearly 10 per cent of the population, not counting some 250,000-500,000 illegal migrants. In London, which has the world's biggest concentration of immigrants, the foreign-born number about 30 per cent. However, the east Europeans are more willing than previous migrants to go outside the capital: Polish workers have become a commonplace sight on Norfolk farms, in Scottish bars and at Cornish hotels.

While employment is the main driver, for non-European immigrants asylum remains a big access route. Of the 179,000 from beyond Europe who were last year granted permission to to live in the UK, 69,000 were asylum-seekers and their dependants. New asylum claims declined following a government crackdown but the total was boosted by officials clearing a backlog.

Debate is growing about migration's economic impact. The government trumpets the advantages and estimates migrants have added 0.5-1 percentage points annually to growth in gross domestic product. Those who are liberal on the issue say migrants, generally healthy young people, contribute more in tax than they consume in public services - and fill skills gaps. For example, 30 per cent of the country's doctors are foreign-born. Danny Sriskandarajah, a migration specialist at IPPR, a pro-migration research group, says: "Far from being a burden, immigrants are vital to the publicservices."

However, for the migration control lobby this ignores low-paid native-born workers. Robert Rowthorn, a Cambridge University economics professor, has written: "Large-scale immigration of unskilled people may be beneficial for urban elites who enjoy the benefits of cheap servants, restaurants and the like, but it is not to the economic advantage of those who have to compete with these immigrants."

Obviously all of this is the debate of the moment. What I think is important is that people are fully informed about the importance and significance of the decisions involved. People's identities are not infinitely flexible, and there are limits to the rate at which they can change. But at the end of the day everyone is faced with one of those 'classic trade-offs', between just how much you value conserving one part of your traditional identity, and just how much you want to conserve sustainable pensions and living standards for yourself and your children.

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