Separating Myth and Reality of Migration

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Separating Myth and Reality of Migration

As a Scot of South Asian heritage, I watched recent news reports of violence in Europe with horror. Images of burning shops looted by rioters across England, and the shooting rampage in Norway by white supremacist Anders Behring Breivik, have given rise to troubling questions. Just how far has Europe gone towards welcoming and integrating its immigrants? And when economic hardship bites, to what extent does immigration become a lightning rod for distrust and violence?

The lean economy could be at the root of unrest in countries where there is structural unemployment. The Southern Poverty Law Center in the US documents the recent rise in right-wing hate groups engaged in rhetoric against Muslims.

In Europe, neo-fascist groups have grown in size and swagger. Even liberal Scandinavian countries are worried about their native population’s low birth rate and the difficulty of assimilating large numbers of immigrants with a different culture, language, religion and skin colour. Concerned that the European Union has become a gateway for Islam, commentators and politicians are increasingly asking how well immigration policies are working, in relation to multiculturalism and integration.

Instead of resenting rapid immigration from the developing world, Western countries should look at the bigger picture. Populations in host nations are shrinking and aging. They need a growing base of taxpaying workers. If Europe wants to maintain its current population of 550 million it will need to double the level of immigration. To maintain its current level of workforce, it will have to triple immigration. If it wants to maintain its ratio of workers to retirees, it will need to quadruple its intake of immigrants. Immigration is, therefore, an economic fact and a necessity and its management is a subject of widespread public debate throughout the European Union as well as other industrialised nations. This has been recognised in Scotland, for example, and it was suggested in 2004 by the Scottish Economic Policy Network that the then current annual target of 8000 was inadequate and the immigration intake should be raised to 50,000. Cultural and political opposition to a separate Scottish immigration policy resulted, as this would mean a permanent backdoor to the higher wages and warmer climate down south. The problem therefore, is how to increase immigration to Scotland and reduce it in England, particularly in London and the south-east “where anti-immigration feeling is strongest … and where general elections tend to be won and lost”.

As politicians are prone to do, statistics vary according to the argument, but a study in 2009 by the London School of Economics estimated there were around 725,000 illegal residents in Britain. This is bound to skew the numbers and reinforces the need for constant and informed public debate.

In the meantime, there is ample proof that immigration benefits the host economy, and it is mostly a myth that immigrants take jobs from locals.

One outstanding example in the US is Silicon Valley in California. In 2005, more than half of the technology workforce was born overseas. That is up from just a tenth in 1970. Companies run by immigrants accounted for close to $17 billion in sales and nearly 60,000 jobs in 1998. Hit hard by the recession, hi-tech employment is now creeping back. There were 410,000 workers in the region in the second quarter of 2009, down just over 27 per cent from a peak of 563,000 workers in the first quarter of 2001.

The need for managed immigration in today’s knowledge economy is the challenge for those concerned to achieve a balance between liberal and sustainable immigration policies. It is widely acknowledged that both skilled and unskilled labour is needed in Europe, and that refugees and asylum seekers provide the unskilled component.

A report from the Strathclyde Business School in 2006 discussed in detail the managedpoints-based immigration system for skilled immigrants, similar to the successful programmes in place for many years now in Canada and Australia. Skilled immigrants need to be strategically matched to job vacancies and, not surprisingly, Canada and Australia set different targets each year depending on need. However, a points-based system for the UK would not solve the regional problem unless additional points are allotted to those who agree to stay in a particular area for a specified amount of time. This could work for Scotland, only if deportation is enforced for those who fail to abide by the agreement -never a popular political solution.

Scotland’s Fresh Talent Initiative, where international students were encouraged to come to Scottish universities and to stay on once qualified, was subsumed into the UK immigration Tiers scheme in 2008.

Established to retain skilled and educated graduates as part of the UK labour force, a similar scheme is in place in the US. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has championed highly-skilled immigrants’ contributions to an increasingly global economy. He leads the Partnership for a New American Economy, a coalition of major corporations including Hewlett Packard, Boeing and Disney, which is calling for immigration reform to boost the flagging US economy. Business leaders in the coalition employ more than 650,000 people and generate more than $220bn in annual sales. They are calling for more opportunities for skilled immigrants to join the US workforce, with a path to legal status for all undocumented immigrants.

Bloomberg repeated his call for reform on 2 May this year, in reference to Detroit, which emptied as its economy tanked. He suggested that the beleaguered city should follow New York’s example and welcome an influx of immigrants to restore its vitality.UN secretary-general Kofi Annan says Europe and the US aren’t alone in needing immigrants. In a 2004 speech, he cautioned that without immigration to Russia, Japan and South Korea, “jobs would go unfilled and services undelivered as economies shrink and societies stagnate.” He warned that managing immigration is not just a matter of “opening doors and joining hands internationally”. Instead, he argued that societies need imaginative strategies for integrating immigrants, so they enrich rather than unsettle the host country. To achieve this, the pace of immigration is crucial. Gradual absorption prevents culture shock for both populations.

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron echoed this sentiment in a speech on immigration in April. “Our country has benefited immeasurably from immigration,” he said, “but we need good immigration, not mass immigration.”

He said that between 1997 and 2009, an unprecedented 2.2 million immigrants came to Britain. This created wealth and jobs, but also placed real pressures on communities. Calling for a policy review on non-European Union economic migrants, Mr Cameron said that the UK government would clamp down on illegal immigration, student visas and the asylum system. The intention, from now on, was “to select and attract the world’s brightest to our shores”, by offering a tempting entrepreneur visa and a route for people of exceptional talent, such as scientists, academics and artists. At the same time, the British government would try to slash total immigration from hundreds of thousands each year, totens of thousands.

It remains to be seen if this will mollify the racist nastiness of the English Defence League, a far-right protest movement which continues to feed on cultural fears in Britain.

Society has clearly changed too fast for many in Europe. Formerly prosperous, homogenous societies are being jolted by violence and extremism. Even in the melting pot of the US, Muslim and Latino immigrants often feel victimised. There are still far too many people uninterested in economic realities, who build widespread irrational fear and hostility against Muslims and other immigrant communities. It will be a race against time to see if the global economy recovers fast enough to absorb pressure from growing populations in the Muslim world of young, educated, unemployed people who dream of moving to the West. If they do manage to get visas, one wonders what sort of welcome they will receive.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and World Fellow at Yale.

This article was originally published by The Scotsman.

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