Immigration affects everyone’s lives and it can rapidly become a toxic issue. It is driven by economic pressures or by humanitarian concerns: to take in refugees fleeing conflict or persecution. In destination countries, the arrival of strangers for either reason is a sensitive matter but politicians should be concerned with managing the effects rather than trying to exploit people’s fears in order to win votes and gain power. It warrants careful discussion of its economic, political, moral, legal and security aspects so that it can be appropriately managed to avoid practical problems and social tensions.
Some people from other countries are recruited by employers who need specific skills, but other economic migrants are job-seekers desiring a better life. Refugees also need jobs. If the economy can absorb all the immigrants without creating unemployment, as has been the case in both the UK and the US, the result is economic growth. UK unemployment in May 2016 was the lowest for a decade, as a proportion of the working-age population, suggesting that immigrants hadn’t taken people’s jobs.
People’s other economic concerns about immigration include the perceptions that immigrants drive down wages and that they impose a financial burden on the economy. These fears are rarely justified, since the minimum wage protects the lowest-paid and economic migrants have to go home if they fail to find work. Free movement of labour, as with the flexibility within the EU or the US, enables large diverse economies to develop naturally and respond to changes in circumstances; it is an economic benefit, and constraints on immigration choke economic growth.
Politicians’ responsibilities include ensuring that housing, education and health services are all capable of accommodating the immigrants; they are equally accountable to both the immigrants and the native population. If politicians complain about immigrants, they are acknowledging their own failures. If they are not personally responsible for solving the problems, or don’t have control over the relevant agencies, it is worth asking why they are employed at all. It is an admission of incompetence to complain about problems that they are paid to solve.
There may be moral and social concerns about immigrants – especially if they have different values – as is often the case with asylum-seekers; this is less of an issue with the economic migration within Europe, though, where all the member countries have signed up to the European Charter of Human Rights. Immigrants change the character of the areas they live in. Provided that they speak the language, behave in a socially acceptable fashion and obey the law, they don’t present a tangible threat to their neighbours. They are entitled to freedom of belief, and should not be required to change their religion, but they may need to change some practices in order to comply with the host society’s laws, human rights and conceptions of how people should behave. What may have been acceptable in their countries of origin might not be acceptable in the societies they have arrived in, but minorities can resolve contradictions in values and avoid giving offence.
There are moral reasons for people to behave well towards immigrants: all religions and common decency enjoin acceptable behaviour towards others. People have only to ask themselves how they would act if they were in the same situation as the immigrants and how they would like to be treated. Cultural pluralism is inevitable in today’s world and, for people of different cultures to live in harmony with each other, it is necessary to show respect towards those of different race, religion, ideology, gender, sexuality and nationality. Some cultural groups, though, form tight clusters which diverge from the wider society and create tensions; the Cantle Report on Social Cohesion, which examined this problem, identified some remedies. Needless to say, it is in immigrants’ own interests to try to fit into the host society.
Immigration has legal and security aspects, which differ between refugees and economic migrants. Strictly speaking, refugees who are at risk in their native countries have no legal right to claim asylum in the country of their choice, although there is a collective international commitment to protect them; if their reasons for fleeing are found to be genuine, they cannot legally be returned to their countries of origin if they would be at risk of persecution.
With regard to economic migrants, countries in the European Economic Area have signed treaties that accept the free movement of labour as being a necessary feature of a single market, but sections 10 and 16 of the relevant EU directive prevent such migrants from being a drain on the benefit system of the destination country and section 22 of that directive allows restrictions “on grounds of public policy, public security or public health”. Countries outside the EU are not legally committed to take in economic migrants.
Some immigrants are security threats, but so are some of the native population; a country’s security services have to be geared to protect the population against anyone who is a threat to others. Background checks are needed on everyone who is entering a non-Schengen country, or is entering the Schengen zone from outside it; intelligence sharing is necessary to facilitate such checks. Countries have the legal right to expel any immigrant who is a security threat, provided that the person concerned would not be placed in danger by repatriation.
Laying blame on peaceful immigrants is a risky tactic. It can cause hostility towards minorities who have lived in the country for generations, potentially leading to uncontrollable violence. Intolerance should be swiftly condemned, because it is all too easy to foment ethnic strife. Politicians who complain about immigration are creating problems instead of solving them; they certainly shouldn’t be rewarded at the ballot box.