Almost all the work which has been done on the subject of the economic consequences of immigration suggests a net economic benefit rather than disbenefit (quite apart from the fact that parts of the NHS would collapse without the input of migrant workers). Yet still people believe (or claim to believe) that immigration is a huge economic threat, and politicians vie with each other to pander to that view. It would be easy to blame the hysteria of some of the tabloids, or even the spinelessness of politicians who know the truth but are afraid of losing votes by articulating it. Whilst I’m sure that both of those are factors, I suspect that they are only reinforcing a deeper mistrust and wariness of ‘otherness’ rather than actually causing it.
The ‘rules’ surrounding debate of the subject are complex and usually implicit rather than openly stated, which makes it harder to discuss sensibly whether, and to what extent, free movement of people is a problem or not. All ‘internal’ migration within a state (for instance from England to Wales, or from London to the Lake District) is a no-go area when it comes to discussion, despite the fact that the only real difference between ‘internal migration’ and ‘immigration’ is the constitutional status of the artificial lines on a map which people cross. And all discussion seems to start from an assumption that movement of people across some lines is something which needs to be ‘controlled’; the only question for debate is how, and at what level.
One of the approaches to control suggested recently was the idea of ‘targetted’ recruitment of immigrants; i.e. identifying what skills are needed and then going out to specifically target people in other countries who have those skills. It’s a neat answer for politicians to give to those who rail against immigration on the doorstep. Active encouragement of selective migration (with the implicit suggestion that ‘non-targetted’ immigration would be controlled) is a way of controlling the free movement of people without saying so. But it leaves me more than a little uneasy.
If those skills are needed here, are they not also needed in the ‘home’ countries of those possessing them? Indeed, in many cases they may well be in even more short supply there than they are here. Whilst attracting people from elsewhere to fill the gaps left by our own inadequate training and education might appear to ‘solve’ our problems (as well as achieving its other intended objective of convincing voters that those advocating such a policy are being ‘tough’ on other immigration), is there not at least a danger that we merely move the skills shortage elsewhere?
Insofar as there are economic disadvantages to human migration, they’re more lilkely to be suffered by the country from which people are emigrating than the one to which they are immigrating. One of my themes on this blog has been the idea of Wales as a good world citizen; is deliberately planning to take highly skilled and educated people away from where they are even more needed really compatible with that?
Most migration – to use the wider term – is economic in one way or another, and it happens because people see that they can enjoy a better life elsewhere. And the cause of that is economic inequality between the richer parts of the world and the poorer ones. Rather than concentrating on preventing or limiting the movement of people – which is little more than a symptom of economic inequality – might it not be better to turn our attention to how we address that inequality instead of perpetuating it?