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30 June 2018


Tag(s): Politics & Economics, Foreign Affairs
The issue of migration has reached crisis point in many parts of the world. In Europe Angela Merkel, who has been a beacon of stability as Chancellor of Germany since 2005, has never looked more vulnerable since her announcement in 2015 that Germany would accept up to a million refugees, triggered by the Syrian civil war. In the USA President Trump was elected largely through his promise to close borders and restrict immigration. He has gone on to deliver on at least part of that promise provoking international opprobrium. In the UK one of the main drivers of the Brexit vote was the desire by a majority of Britons to have control of ‘our borders’ and restrict the EU policy of ‘freedom of movement of labour’. With  so many trouble spots in the world: Afghanistan, Haiti,  Iraq, Syria, Venezuela, The Yemen and many more there are an estimated 68 million refugees seeking asylum. But in addition there are any number of economic migrants who just seek a better life.

There are many economic studies that show that migration is generally positive for the economy of the country receiving the immigrants. There are equally just as many social studies that show that if this immigration  occurs too rapidly it puts great strain on the receiving nation’s infrastructure and social services and indeed can cause considerable social tension. President Macron wants to remove the issue of race from the French constitution arguing that all humans share 99.9% of their DNA and so race is meaningless. This may be biologically true but in anthropological terms it is naïve as peoples have developed different identities, customs, culture etc. over centuries.

Last week, on 20th June the UN observed World Refugee Day. Following World War II, and in response to the large numbers of people fleeing Eastern Europe, the UN 1951 Refugee Convention adopted (in Article 1.A.2) the following definition of ‘refugee’ to apply to any person who:

‘owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.’

In some ways, this is quite a wide definition. But in others, it is quite restrictive, and it is difficult to believe that the UNHCR estimate of 68 million all meet this definition. Further, the asylum seeker is supposed to seek asylum at the first country of call, and not go ‘asylum shopping.’ When this factor is mixed up with those who are simply economic migrants, but hide under the cover of ‘refugee ‘status, it is easy to see how the EU particularly gets into difficulties.

In seeking to break down internal borders, the so-called Schengen’ agreement, the EU in its customary muddled way forgot to secure its external borders. These migrants in their thousands, potentially millions, rush from Asia and Africa into the southern countries of the EU but really want to get to the richer countries of the north. Unemployment is very high in the southern countries of the EU, particularly those who mistakenly joined the Euro, and so migrants do not really want to stay in Greece or Italy but travel to Germany or the UK where there is more scope for employment, and where it is believed, there is better social welfare.

This has led to populist governments taking over in Italy, Austria and Hungary and all these countries have made steps to close their borders. Merkel’s rash promise has caused problems for her at home as many German citizens are not attracted to the idea of accepting a million migrants from the Middle East and Africa, but also with her neighbours who blame her for the mass influx of these migrants through their territories.

This week the EU reached agreement to harden its asylum policy, with plans to set up processing centres in African countries to try to cut off the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean. They will find it tough to do this and remain within international law. Angela Merkel has warned that the EU’s fate would be decided by how it handled the political crisis over migration.

This whole problem is conflated with the freedom of movement of workers in the European Union. The freedom of movement of workers is a policy chapter of the acquis communautaire of the European Union. It is one of the four economic movements of goods, services, labour and capital. Under the Treaty of Rome:
  1. Freedom of movement for workers shall be secured within the Community (now the Union) 
  2. Such freedom of movement shall entail the abolition of any discrimination based on nationality between workers of the Member States as regards employment, remuneration and other conditions of work and employment.
  3. It shall entail the right, subject to limitations justified on grounds of public policy, public security or public health: 
  4. To accept offers of employment actually made;
  5. To move freely within the territory of Member states for this purpose; 
  6. The provisions of this article shall not apply to employment in the public service.
I have italicised here all the references to work. The freedom of movement only applies to work. This is an economic concept. There is no freedom of movement of people which is a social concept. If you want to go to France to work you have to have a job offer first. And my interpretation of the last point about public service is that German doctors are not free to come to the UK to work in the NHS.

So what has happened? Only 1.1% of our working age population is employed in other EU countries, the second lowest of the 28 countries (Germany is on 1%).[i] It has gone down over the last ten years from 1.2%, just as the share of our exports to the rest of the EU has fallen from nearly 60% to 40% over the last 20 years. In other words we are becoming less integrated with the rest of the EU before we leave it. More Britons are living and working in Australia, a country of 25 million people, than in the rest of the EU with its 450 million.

But it’s very different in some of the poorer countries. Nearly 20% of Romanians work in other EU states. It’s 15% of Lithuanians and 13% of Portuguese. And these figures have risen dramatically. Over ten years it’s trebled with the Romanians and Lithuanians and doubled with the Portuguese.

In the richer countries it’s mainly middle-class professionals who seek work abroad. In France just 1.3% of their population work in the rest of the EU but two thirds of them have degrees. Hardly any of the Romanians do. In other words a tiny percentage of well-educated professionals go from the richer countries to seek work while in the poorer countries it’s the low-skilled who move abroad for better-paid work. So the free movement of labour has not been a way of integrating the European economy and workforce but a massive scheme for moving cheap labour across the continent.

That’s been good for British companies but not for British workers. For the low skilled it’s meant intense competition for jobs, pressure on wages and the rise of the gig economy.

The Conservative government’s policy on migration has been in tatters for years. Their stated intention of reducing net migration to ‘tens of thousands’ rather than the hundreds of thousands it has been throughout their period in office is impossible to achieve. Net migration is the balance between two different numbers: the number of those who arrive minus the number of those who leave. Since the government has no influence over the latter number it cannot control the net figure. But in any case, as a member state of the EU, it cannot control the first either. But it can reduce the first figure by reducing immigration from outside the EU but it does not do this either.

We have recently had the scandal of the so-called Windrush generation, when immigrants who came here on the Windrush in 1948, or their descendants have been deported even though they were here legally. This is a strange story. In 1948 HMT Empire Windrush, a troopship, was carrying home British servicemen from Australia. It stopped in Kingston, Jamaica to fetch West Indian RAF servicemen back from leave. Finding that he had many empty berths its enterprising captain advertised passage for half price. 802 passengers from the Caribbean joined the voyage, most of whom had served in the war. Sadly they found a very different welcome now the war was over. Clement Attlee’s Labour government was thrown into a panic. Officials looked into turning the ship back or at least barring the migrants’ entry. Attlee defended the principle that colonial subjects ‘of whatever race or colour …. should be freely admissible to the United Kingdom’, but said: ‘If our policy were to result in a great influx of undesirables, we might …. have to consider modifying it.’

But around the same time the Attlee government passed the British Nationality Act. This gave British citizenship to all the inhabitants of British colonies and the Commonwealth – a fifth of the world’s population. According to the historian Randall Hansen, when this was debated in the Commons ‘there was not a single reference’ to the possibility that it might lead to mass immigration.

Over the years British governments have wavered between support for the Act’s principles, whatever they might be, and growing alarm at the reality of ‘coloured migration’. In 1962 a Conservative government put some limits on this policy and in 1971 another Conservative government passed the Immigration Act which largely restricted ‘right of abode’ to those with family links to the UK.

In 2004 the Labour government failed to put any limits on the rights of citizens of the new member countries of the EU thinking that only a few thousand would come from countries like Poland. Germany and others put limits of several years on the rights of access for these citizens. As it turned out over 400,000 came to the UK from Eastern Europe.

This is a difficult subject to discuss without suggesting that you have your own racial prejudice. But that is part of the problem. Because we are afraid to discuss the issue openly a great deal of harm is caused and there are unintended consequences, socially, economically and politically.

[i] Eurostat

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