When politicians start to talk about immigration, they never seem to get further than the op-ed page of the Daily Mail - this is a mildly xenophobic world where millions of criminals are, apparently, poised to enter the UK and destroy its way of life.
This is obviously wrong, and the kind of simplistic thinking that it represents confuses the real issues. There are two aspects to immigration to the UK. Although the dim-witted tabloid press tends to group the two groups: refugees and market migrants under one pejorative label, "asylum seekers".
Actually genuine asylum seekers may not be refused entry to the UK at all. These are people who have fled persecution, war or famine. The United Nations Charter, of which Britain is not merely a signatory but a co-author, sets out a duty for receiving countries to protect refugees. Neither is Britain a particularly popular destination for refugees, who are more interested in getting away from persecution. Many other states take much larger numbers and proportions of refugees.
The second group of people are not refugees or asylum seekers, they are market migrants, or some say "economic migrants". Any open economy at any one time has many migrants working within it. In fact relatively open labour markets make for a far more efficient economy. Over the Years French onion sellers, Italian ice cream sellers or American soldiers have made their home in Britain- and in Scotland ice cream making is usually synonymous with an Italian name.
After the Second World War the recovering British economy turned to its Empire to fill the skills gaps that were opening up. Thus in the fifties West Indian bus conductors became quite common. However, as the ties of Empire weakened and the British economy suffered a sharp reverse in the 1970s such immigration died down, with the notable except of East African Asians, who were driven to the UK as refugees by such tyrants as Idi Amin.
In the passed decade there have been two large groups: refugees from such countries as Iraq, Somalia and Yugoslavia and increasing economic migration from Central Europe. Smaller numbers have come from Africa, especially Morocco, which are ambiguous, but mostly illegal.
After the expansion of the European Union, larger numbers of central Europeans came to the UK. There was a lot of work here, the pay was better than at home, and many of them spoke English anyway. The interesting phenomenon was that most of these market migrants, once it became legal to travel, did not settle. Typically they have tended to spend shorter periods in the UK- a few months- before they return to their home country. The Daily Mail typically looks at the number of entries, but not the number of corresponding exits, when it declares that the country is being "overrun".
So what is the problem with immigration? Typically the anti-immigration campaigners argue that there is a finite amount of space/resources in the UK and that "there is no room in such a small country". However, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of economics. These migrants are mostly highly economically active- they work hard and pay taxes, and very rarely claim social benefits, since if they lose their job, they tend to return home. Shortages of teachers have been filled by New Zealanders, shortages of houses have been filled by Polish construction workers. (Before we talk about the concreting over of the South East of England, we should remember that only 8% of the land surface of the UK is built on- a far smaller percentage than such countries as the Netherlands or Belgium. I do not advocate indiscriminate construction, but it would only take a very gentle relaxation of the planning laws to accommodate anyone- but of course that might lead to a reduction in house prices...)
Immigration has been a massively significant factor in boosting the British economy. Arguably it has been the decisive difference between the economic performance of the UK and France. Whereas previously East African Asians were a leading immigrant entrepreneur group, now we see the emergence of Polish or Czech Entrepreneurs or Lithuanian investment bankers. Of course since 2004, most of the Central European economic migrants have been here quite legally.
What about those economic migrants who are in the UK without papers and thus illegally? They too often work extremely hard; indeed as the tragedy of the Chinese cocklers in Morecambe Bay showed, they are exploited. There is demand for their labour, but because they can not register in the labour market, they can only work in the most menial cash-in-hand kind of jobs. Ironically enough, given the hard line attitude of the Daily Mail and Migration Watch crowd, they could not leave the UK legally, even if they wanted to. Without the stamps, they would be interviewed by immigration officers, deported and then forbidden to enter the UK again. These, by the way, are people who may have been in the UK for years.
I was in Albania last month- a country which has been denuded of its economically active population. Germany and Italy, as well as the UK, have taken virtually the entire population aged between 20 and 40. In Moldova, the position is even worse- over 25% of the population now lives overseas. They can not come home, even if they want to, because they can not travel legally. By failing to give an amnesty to the Moldovans and the Albanians, they can not get papers and can not travel. In other words, given the large number of people who are already here, it seems likely that our failure to grant an amnesty to citizens of these two European nations is actually keeping their migrants in the UK more permanently. As the freer movement for such countries as Poland has shown, you might get more people coming, but they usually come for shorter periods, so they do not lose touch with their home country and do not settle.
As a market Liberal I look with healthy scepticism at immigration controls anyway. If there is demand for labour we should not ignore it and pretend that the native pool of labour can provide, but rather we should presume that such labour is required and find ways of not merely allowing it, but attracting the best brains and most entrepreneurial minds to work in our country- after all it was a major factor in the success of the USA over the past two hundred years. Assuming immigration is bad is just plain wrong. We do not have to open our doors to the "poor oppressed masses", but we should not pretend that we can do without any of them.
At present, we do not have a rational immigration policy. The increased border controls (by the way a significant inconvenience now to a frequent traveller like myself) cost a lot more money, but seem to me to be irrelevant.
The most sensible option (and the most humane) is to legitimize those who are here. Then we can work out a system of green cards that will allow the British economy to take advantage of the brightest, the best and the most hard working people that we can find. Imposing general controls or mass deportation will not get rid of people the Daily Mail does not like, even though they are precisely the kind of gesture politics that can be most appealing to those of a more populist and cynical turn of mind.
PS- As I turn to the London paper I see that the British Office of National Statistics reports that 4.5 million British citizens live abroad with over 800,000 in China alone. Always worth remembering that the traffic is hardly a one way flow.