The impossible task: building popular support for immigration

Immigration is one of the most persistent topics in British political discourse. Long-term trends show  consistently high levels of net migration, predominantly from outside of Europe to the UK. The political establishment is keen to support public opinion which shows a desire for a reduction in the numbers of immigrants.

From ‘British jobs for British workers’ to vans emblazoned with ‘Go Home’speculation over migrant worker lists to mugs promising greater immigration control, British politics is full of cynical attempts to exploit hostility towards migration. However, if we recognise migration as an inevitable phenomenon of global economics, we can develop a coherent policy response to ensure that the benefits of migration are shared throughout the world.

Boris Johnson with Vote Leave sign in background

Boris Johnson speaking at a vote leave rally in Newcastle Upon Tyne in April 2016 Photograph | Stuart Boulton/Shutterstock


Even when shielding migrants from denigration or criticising arbitrary targets, few politicians deny that immigration has some negative features, including the depression of wages, pressure on public services and the abuse of benefits.  Criticisms are aimed at those from developing nations, where the majority of migrants are from. However, the economics suggest that public perceptions are inaccurate.

The diminishing role of trade unions, rise of zero hour contracts and generally sluggish productivity growth over the past decade have all played a role in undermining wages. Outcry over the impact of immigration on wages is entirely disproportionate and evidence suggests that migration has had a negligible impact on the wages of low-skilled workers.

In fact, every great hub of economic activity begins with migrants. In the long-run, migration can stimulate economic progress. Larger populations have a positive impact on demand and labour supply. As they enter the workforce, migrant populations purchase domestic goods and services, creating employment opportunities. Migrants pay taxes, which goes towards improving public services, which now benefit from economies of scale. Businesses see a large pool of potential labourers and consumers within a geographically convenient location.

The above scenario might seem a little idyllic, but it better reflects the dynamic nature of national economies today. Resources are not limited by population size, but by the size of the economy and wealth distribution within. Reducing the number of migrants won’t create more school places or hospital beds, as it will also reduce the tax base. Furthermore, migrant populations help public services benefit from economies of scale, by spreading large fixed costs, such as the cost of providing power to a school or hospital, over a greater number of people.

Of course, from a development perspective we must be wary of the damage that migration might be doing to the countries and economy which migrants have left. Transferring payments back to relatives and friends helps to divert much-needed capital to these areas, but the prospect of human capital flight can make it harder for countries on the pathway to development.

unidentifiable workers pick green beans in a field

In the long-run, migration can stimulate economic progress | Photograph Mikeledray / Shutterstock


If the UK is serious about reducing the number of migrants, then acting more vigorously to promote global economic development is a potential solution. Transferring resources to stimulate the development of infrastructure in the developing world and fostering the economic and productivity growth necessary for higher incomes and better opportunities would deter international migration flows. Unfortunately, international aid is becoming another target for contempt amongst the electorate.

Closing the door on migrants is a symbolic gesture of isolationism. Emerging economies will negotiate future trade deals with the rights of their citizens at the forefront of the agenda, and free movement is a coveted right. India has already voiced its stance that barriers to Indian students coming to study in the UK could prove an obstacle to any trade deal.

Immigration policy should not be built by establishing arbitrary migrant limits or through pandering to unfounded accusations. It should ensure that the wealth migration creates is distributed effectively so that any strains associated with migration are eliminated. It should be compounded with a strategic international development strategy, which helps lay the foundations of economic prosperity across the developing world, so those countries are better able to provide the opportunities and living standards that all humans are entitled to.

Find out more:

Financial Times – Three visions of UK economy take shape on verge of Brexit talks

The Economist – The progressive case for immigration

Thumbnail image: Shutterstock

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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