Understanding migration

Migration has become one of the central issues of modern politics. It is arguable that it was the key driver of the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote, and it may well have contributed to Donald Trump’s victory in the United States presidential election. Of course not everyone who based their votes on concerns about immigration will have done so for the same reasons. Some will have been concerned about pressures on social services; some will have believed that immigration drives up indigenous unemployment; some will have had concerns about the erosion of local tradition and culture; some (and I believe, very few) will have been motivated by racism. Some will have wanted to have little or no immigration at all (which was pretty much the position of UKIP in the UK), some will have been less concerned about numbers than about processes.

It is however important to say to those who believe that immigration is a dangerous new development and that it has a detrimental economic and social impact that there is little evidence to support their views. Mass immigration is certainly not new. In fact, if it were new I wouldn’t be writing this and you wouldn’t be reading it. Every country you are likely to have ever lived in or visited has a population built on historical mass migration. All of Europe got its ethnic mix – including its cultures, languages and national identities – from the Völkerwanderung of the first millennium. The UK itself is, in ethnic terms, the product of invasion and migration; there is little left of any earlier population. Interestingly these mass movements on the whole eradicated prior cultures, which is not something that today’s migration tends to do. And of course, the United States of America owes its entire identity to immigration.

There is also little evidence that mass migration is economically or socially bad. Almost everywhere, including in the UK, it has stimulated rather than depressed economic activity and employment. Indeed it is pretty clear that any sudden drop in immigration would have dangerous economic consequences, and would place considerable strain on public finances, particularly in relation to pensions.

It is important to say to those who believe in the retention of a fairly insulated ethnic composition and culture that this is not possible. Global travel and global economic activity have increasingly ruled it out, and advanced economies will necessarily be magnets for migration, and will need this migration to prosper. The only sensible discussion should be about how to manage this, and in what circumstances and by what means to constrain it. Numerical targets for net migration are unwise; no government can deliver on these.

For all that, unrestrained and unmanaged migration is not realistic either, but the management of migration will not be successful if it starts from the premise that immigration is bad and needs to be stopped. Politicians need to be honest with the people about the benefits of immigration and the ways it can be made to work. Allowing people to believe that there could be a return to some mythical history in which indigenous culture was unaffected by migrants is dishonest.

I have worked in universities for forty years. None of what we value in higher education would have been possible without significant academic migration. It is time to realise that this is true more widely, not only of universities.

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4 Comments on “Understanding migration”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    “It is important to say to those who believe in the retention of a fairly insulated ethnic composition and culture that this is not possible. Global travel and global economic activity have increasingly ruled it out, and advanced economies will necessarily be magnets for migration, and will need this migration to prosper.”

    In his article “Between separation and integration: Strategies of cohabitation in the era of diasporization and Internet” sociologist Zygmunt Bauman recalls Ulrich Beck’s observation that “we have been, collectively, cast in a cosmopolite situation (in the sense of becoming irretrievably dependent on each other and bound to exercise reciprocal influence) but we haven’t yet started in earnest to develop … a matching cosmopolitan awareness.”

    To expand upon Beck’s insightful comments, I would suggest that just like we have still to develop legal, ethical and cognitive frameworks to deal at best with contemporary (and forthcoming) technological advancements, we also urgently require a new global understanding of social phenomena like migration. The globalization of economic markets has not been tantamount to the cosmopolitanism of the marketeers’ minds. Only intercultural competence, (and here universities have a key role to play) can sustain a more positive ‘migration narrative’ and save us from the pitfalls of ‘restorative nostalgia’, the kind of which is behind the description of plans for Britain’s post-Brexit trading relationship with the Commonwealth as ‘Empire 2.0,’ or a minister’s preposterous claim, in a tweet, that “The United Kingdom, is one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history.” (see “Building Brexit on myth of Empire ignores our brutal history”, The Guardian, 7 March 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/07/building-brexit-on-myth-of-empire-ignores-history-at-our-peril)

    In a forthcoming academic article I expand upon some initial observations on themes of immigration first presented here in a guest post (“Knocking on Europe’s door” 7 October 2013, https://universitydiary.wordpress.com/2013/10/07/knocking-on-europes-door/)

    and demonstrate how narratives of fear, insecurity and nostalgia have contributed to construct a distorted image of immigration which exploits comprehensible anxieties with regards to European and national identities in order to achieve specific political aims (as in the case of the Brexit Leave campaign). The article also hints at broader debates concerning the distinction between immigration and migration and illustrates some examples of counter-narratives in the form of scholarly and artistic interventions which have the potential to debunk myths and challenge prejudice.

    Political scientists Christina Boswell and James Hampshire’s suggestions are particularly useful to this purpose when they argue that false beliefs about immigrants:
    “will not be shifted by bombarding voters with data, since people rarely change their minds when presented with contrary evidence. Paradoxically, therefore, a more rational debate about immigration cannot be purely rationalistic. Instead, politicians who want to challenge ignorance and prejudice need to construct narratives about immigration and its place in our society which draw on existing public philosophies of openness and inclusion. These public philosophies do exist and they have been mobilized in the recent past. They can and should be resuscitated.”
    (“Taking back control of ideas: How politicians can shape public debates on immigration” LSE, 2 March 2017 http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/taking-back-control-of-ideas-immigration-debate/)

  2. Vincent Says:

    I think that people don’t mind migration provided the social protections remain in place. But when they aren’t maintained the migration is blamed not the policy to sweat the infrastructure to destruction. This is what occurred in Lincolnshire, Warwickshire, Northamptonshire and Herefordshire when migrant workers who came in the mid 90s to work the fields hand picking salads and soft fruit.
    My contention is that very few are actively racist, a greater number are passively so. But most have issues with migration.

  3. W Says:

    The author points to but does not quite say that migration is good. But this misses the point- migration happens as a result of other broader social processes and they are unstoppable: migration can be devastating or exhilarating but it is inevitable in certain cases.

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