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Reframing Immigration

Author: Conor Walsh

Editors: Antara Basu and Hannah Westfallen

In the Western world, immigration is a salient issue. It is hard to escape the tsunami of anti-migration headlines: either too many people are leaving, forcing a brain drain—depletion of skills—on an already struggling economy; or too many people are entering, allegedly stealing our jobs, our homes and our healthcare. Our man-made borders—and those who cross them—form an integral part of our nation-states. But must migration always be painted in a negative direction?

In highly educated economies with ageing populations, immigration is imperative. We must reframe the issue if we wish to reverse the damage that anti-migrant rhetoric has created.

The United Kingdom is a prime example of a country crippled by migration politics: in December 2022, a survey conducted by YouGov found that 56% of Britons thought that immigration had been too high in the previous ten years, whilst 31% felt that this immigration had been “mostly bad” for the country. The country’s decision to leave the European Union following the notorious Brexit referendum in 2016 captured decade-old grievances and redefined Britain's place on the world stage.

Prior to the referendum new political parties—like UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party)—flourished on the back of the anti-migrant movement. Leading figures, such as Nigel Farage, gained significant levels of press coverage and a public image which threatened David Cameron’s Conservative government. Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson also built his public profile off the back of the Leave campaign, in addition to his plethora of television appearances and quirky-but-lovable use of the English vernacular. His reputation provided him with the support of Eurosceptics from across the Conservative backbenches, and later paved the way for his subsequent premiership. Immigration has shaped British politics beyond comprehension—and migration targets have dominated conversations in the Westminster bubble since the reforms of Tony Blair’s government in the early 2000s.

This year marks seven years since the Brexit referendum and yet Britain’s borders are still at the top of the government’s agenda. In his first speech of 2023, current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak identified tackling the small boats crisis—the issue of migrants making perilous journeys across the English channel—as one of his top priorities. These crossings are frequently framed in a negative way: Suella Braverman, the British Home Secretary, described the crossings as “an invasion,” while other politicians have used the terms “illegal” and “criminal”. This language not only drives public hostility towards those migrants—predominantly refugees—who risk their lives crossing the channel, but also negatively politicises migration more generally.

The government’s controversial Rwanda policy, a plan to deport those with rejected asylum claims to Rwanda, is a further example of a policy aimed at combating illegal migration, and at grave cost too. Not only do these policies dominate agendas—reducing the limited time that ministers have to influence other critical policy areas, such as policing, health and education—but the Rwanda policy alone is set to cost the taxpayer £140 million; this is a steep sum considering no deportations are yet to take place.

A desire to control one's borders is understandable—a nation that struggles to control its borders faces threats to its sovereignty. But controlling one’s borders must be done pragmatically.

The pursuit to tackle so-called illegal migration now dominates policy agendas to an unhealthy extent. An Australian-style points system, which favours skilled workers, is seen as desirable, and understandably so. Such a system prioritises entry to those with qualifications, like nurses, doctors, accountants or lawyers, who are vital for the future of the British workforce—especially the NHS (National Health Service) which relies on a disproportionate number of foreign workers, predominantly in clinical roles. But such a system is grounded more in emotion than numbers. The reality is that ‘unskilled’ workers are just as vital to a healthy economy as those with degree-level or professional qualifications.

It is no secret that the UK, like most countries around the world, is struggling to balance the books following the Covid-19 pandemic and war in Ukraine. Inflation is pushing up prices, whilst workers suffer real terms pay cuts, and energy prices reach an all-time high. Times are tough, and Britain’s institutionalised growth problem appears ever more pressing.

But this poor economic performance has not been aided by severe staff shortages and a potential tightening of immigration laws. The UK currently has a vacancy rate of 3.9 so that, for every 100 jobs in the economy, almost 4 of them are vacant. This is the highest vacancy rate the UK has seen for decades and is a symptom of a country which has become hostile towards low-skilled migrants.

Chronic staff shortages are being fuelled by a failing immigration system—one that has become overtly problematic. Groups and individuals from across the business community, including the CBI (Confederation of British Industry), have called for a revision to the current immigration policy in order to combat this shortage and prevent systemic damage to the British economy. In a time of economic turmoil, pro-growth policies are required to stimulate recovery. An immigration system which welcomes migrants of all backgrounds—especially those capable of filling the shortfall in workers—is a prime example of such a strategy.

Historic negative framing has made immigration policy a dangerous subject for those in politics, but political sacrifices surrounding immigration will have to be made if the government is serious about steadying the economic ship.

For too long we have framed immigration as a negative issue—one which damages our culture and burdens our resources. But the current economic turmoil and decade-high vacancy rates are an example of why immigration is vital for a healthy economy. This is not to say that we should enjoy completely open borders which enable uncontrolled immigration, but that we should reframe the issue of immigration in a positive direction—showcasing its merits, as well as its weaknesses.

Policymakers and the media have a duty to reframe immigration in this more positive direction. Too much of anything is bad, but we are fooling ourselves if we believe that immigration is only damaging to our country. In reality, it is anything but.

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