Magazine article Geographical

Labouring the Point: The Past Five Years Have Seen a Flurry of Immigration Activity in the UK, as Nearly a Million People Came to Work Here. Is There Cause for Concern?

Magazine article Geographical

Labouring the Point: The Past Five Years Have Seen a Flurry of Immigration Activity in the UK, as Nearly a Million People Came to Work Here. Is There Cause for Concern?

Article excerpt

The demonisation of migrants has been so powerful that it's important to begin by emphasising that there are four markedly different types of immigrant in Britain today. First, there are the skilled workers who arrive here under the official work-permit scheme. The government highlights fields suffering employee shortages, producing an annual quota of work permits. A third of these are in information or business services, a quarter are in healthcare.

The second group of migrants are relatives of British citizens who come to Britain for the purposes of what is coldly known as 'family reunification'. In official circles, this is one of the least popular migrant categories, as its members aren't seen as productive economic units. The third category is asylum.

Finally, and most perplexingly, there is illegal migration. The volume of this sector is, by definition, unknown, but estimates range up to a hysterical 400,000 a year. There has indeed been a lively boom in illegal migration, matched and perhaps encouraged by a sharp enlargement of the black, ask-no-questions economy. But while there has been a similar surge in people-trafficking--the kind of illicit smuggling that invariably mushrooms in an atmosphere of prohibition--the majority of such migration is undramatic. We may like to imagine people stowing away in the wheel wells of aircraft, or paddling across the Channel on stolen tractor tyres, but the majority of illegal migrants are simply students or temporary visitors who overstay their visas. Britain isn't vigilant; historically, it has always prized liberty above security.

Not for the first time, the government finds itself in an awkward position. On the one hand, it's obliged to recognise the financial imperatives that drive this human trade: the economy could barely function without it. On the other hand, it's eager to appease the harsher, more raucous voices raised against it and tries to appear tough and resolute. Opinions on both sides grow more heated and extreme. Toss into the mix the specific threat of religiously inspired, anti-Western terrorism and you have a dangerous cocktail.

There may be little that any one government can do. The pressures driving modern migration are intense. The last five years of the 20th century saw the most intense movement of people towards Britain in the nation's history--nearly a million foreigners came to work in England, Scotland and Wales. However, outflows also reached a historic peak.

We are living through a period of intense population turbulence, caused by all the things that fall under the umbrella term 'globalisation'. New technology, cheap transport, liberal politics, ruthless economics and sudden wars have all sponsored a sharp increase in the number of mobile or displaced people. A century ago, a volcano in Montserrat, war in Somalia and Sri Lanka or a religious coup in Afghanistan wouldn't have propelled exiles to Britain. Modern life has brought such trips into the mass market, making substantial migration an inescapable fact. Foreign-born people comprise a whisker under eight per cent of the workforce (more if one allows for undeclared labour). But railing against this is like railing against growing old.

Just as the weather isn't uniform across Britain, neither is immigration. Fifty per cent of immigrants settle in southeast England, 2.5 per cent in Wales, 2.2 per cent in northeast England and a mere 0.7 per cent in Northern Ireland. In Scotland, despite the occasional uproar on Glaswegian housing estates, the major issue is the opposite: emigration. …

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