The UK election will be decided in less than three weeks and immigration is indeed one of the main issues as it has been in many other European countries. Whilst the party leaders will debate the UK’s membership of the European Union, none has so far mentioned the two airplane loads of passengers washing up dead on the European coast this week alone. Let me rephrase this. The equivalent of two plane loads of irregular migrants assumed dead in capsized boats trying to make the Italian coast from Libya in the past week. If they had been airline crashes then the media coverage would have been tenfold greater. But they are not plane passengers, they are nothing more than “clandestinos” and supporting their rights wins few votes. Perhaps the biggest moral issue for Europeans in this generation is rarely a central political concern, particularly to those in the North and West of Europe far from the Mediterranean. When agreement is reached, it is often perverse – such as ending support for Italy’s “mare nostrum” humanitarian interventions for fear that it just attracts more migrants.
However, political debates about immigration are not really about numbers. How does any society decide it has enough migrants? About 9% of the UK’s population is foreign born, whilst in Australia or Switzerland it is 24% and it is over 80% in the United Arab Emirates or Qatar. How to know when enough is enough? It is very hard for host populations to make objective decisions about this, so too their politicians. One common factor for most of these countries is that it is the localities within them with the lowest percentage of immigrants that are often the most anti-immigrant in sentiment. So perhaps it is not about numbers at all, but about the perception of those numbers, about qualitative and not quantitative issues. The target to reduce net immigration to the UK by the current coalition government to 100,000 was all but abandoned last year – so perhaps mainstream British politicians are also realizing this.
Immigration debates then become more meaningful when they are about qualitative issues. Sometimes this can raise tough questions about cultural identity and religion – some of which we discussed in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January. These can be uncomfortable and challenging discussions but they are what the immigration debate in Europe is really about (but in code), not about the numbers. At its essence is the clash between those that believe Europe should remain predominately white and of Christian heritage and others who see Europe as part of an interconnected world united by a set of universal values but not a set of religious beliefs or a shared bloodline. Those of you who read my blogs know what side of this discussion I am unambiguously on – but it is where the debate really is. In fact it is less and less about immigration at all, as each of cultural identities is beginning to become independent from where in the world any of us are born.
On a more positive note, some British politicians are taking a much smarter position of immigration – linking it more to abuse and exploitation than to numbers. It is an undoubted fact, that some immigrants coming to the UK (in particular those entering illegally) are vulnerable to considerable exploitation in the labour market. This came to prominence in 2004 when 23 Chinese workers drowned whilst picking seashells in the North of England and the issue of unregulated third party labour providers came into focus. The Gangmasters Licensing Authority, which now regulates the role of labour providers in UK agriculture, horticulture and shellfish farming, is a very important step towards ending labour market exploitation. Fundamentally, it focuses on ending exploitation not just for foreign-born workers but also native workers too – exploitation is exploitation. The powerful message this sends is that the UK wants to be home for migrants but not at any cost – not if it means undercutting the protections and rights of native workers or the migrants themselves. This is surely the most effective way of controlling immigration – regulating the labour market and not just the borders.
No UK Government minister has yet been willing to extend the remit of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority to other business sectors donated by temporary agencies, such as hotels, catering or construction. But perhaps after the forthcoming election, whichever party wins, it would make good political sense to do so, in particular if Britain’s newest piece of legislation, the Modern Day Slavery Act, is to become more than a piece of paper.