Policy-Making Must Recognise the Complexities of Europe’s Migration Crisis

Europe’s migration ‘crisis’ is complex and multi-faceted, whilst policy responses to date have been simplistic and founded on assumptions about migrants’ journeys and motivations for moving, rather than on evidence. Such policy responses run the risk of making the present situation, the largest humanitarian crisis in Europe since the Second World War, worse. Meanwhile, negative narratives on the part of policy-makers and the media with respect to high levels of net ‘regular’ migration to the UK must be challenged. These were two of the conclusions of the latest in the series of 21st Century Challenges: Policy Forum events run by the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). The discussion saw leading geographers and social scientists consider both regular and ‘irregular’ migration through Europe and onto the UK, before a lively discussion with the audience, comprised of policy-makers and individuals with a professional interest in migration.

Over 1 million people have crossed the Mediterranean into Europe since the beginning of 2015; a mixed flow of economic migrants and refugees: over 90 per cent of those who have arrived in Greece have been from the top 10 refugee-producing countries in the world. Professor Heaven Crawley suggested in her presentation that the scale and high visibility of this movement of people has triggered a multi-faceted crisis: a crisis of refugee protection; a humanitarian crisis; border crises between European nations and a geopolitical crisis, as European countries play out old tensions through disputes over refugee and migrant flows. In dealing, or failing to deal, with the crisis, European countries have demonstrated a failure in leadership, lack of responsibility sharing and a failure to deliver on the promises that have been made to relocate refugees.

Overall, Professor Crawley suggested, there has been a fundamental failure of policy to understand and incorporate the evidence regarding the factors motivating migrants to move to Europe from their countries of origin. Policy-makers have made simplistic assumptions about the ‘pull factors’ bringing people to Europe, around welfare, benefits and jobs for example, but in fact, as Heaven’s and colleagues’ research reveals, many migrants have very limited knowledge about Europe. Many migrants do not realise that ‘Europe’ is comprised of different countries with differing policies. The decisions that migrants make about their onward movements are often ad hoc and driven by circumstance and chance meetings with others who can help them towards a particular destination. Policy responses need to be more tailored, targeted and nuanced to reflect the complexities of mixed migrant flows.

Those migrants who are moving and entering Europe ‘irregularly’ are doing so because they have no way to secure the legal protection that they need for themselves and for their families. In fact, this represents a small proportion of those migrating into and within Europe. The vast majority do so legally. In the UK, Madeleine Sumption explained, the largest groups of such migrants are ‘EU workers and non-EU students’. These two groups comprise the highest number of people coming to this country who remain for at least a year.

In the UK, there is no doubt that net migration is high compared to historical trends. Levels of net migration are similar to those in the 2000s but now seem to be sustained for a long period of time. It isn’t clear, suggested Madeleine, whether in a few years’ time this will have been revealed as a temporary ‘blip’, or whether such high levels will have been sustained. It is unusual too, historically, that a large part in the increase in net migration to the UK has been due to migration from Europe; traditionally migrants were drawn to the UK from Commonwealth countries. Non-EU migration is still a significant contributor to the overall figures however, with an increase in work-related migration and a decline in non-EU emigration.

In examining the economic effects of migration on the UK, economists tend to focus on effects on the labour market, jobs, wages and the housing market. Most of the available research shows that the impact of migration on public finances is small, suggested both Madeleine Sumption and Max Nathan. On average, migrants contribute the same amount to the economy as they withdraw in benefits. Professor Christian Dustmann’s work at UCL has indicated that there is a small positive impact on the wages for native UK workers for those already on high salaries, but a small negative impact, most pronounced for those in the bottom 20 per cent of the distribution, on the wages of the lowest paid native workers. This may be most evident, for example, for those employed by temporary employment agencies in industries with a high turnover of people in low quality employment, for example domestic service and social care. To address this, Max Nathan suggested, requires policy-makers and industry to develop new business models and to examine issues around enforcement of labour market regulations, workers’ rights and quality of work.

If the effect of migration on public finances is negligible, suggested Madeleine Sumption, then it should follow that the effect on public services should be too, as public finance pays for public services. Yet this is not necessarily the case at a local level. It can’t be assured that money follows the flows of people to particular areas; there may be localised pressures, particularly in areas with little history of migration. Max Nathan demonstrated through his talk that migrant share does vary greatly geographically across the UK. Cities have become ‘super-diverse’, in particular London, Birmingham and Manchester, with migrants concentrated in cities to a great extent. With this ‘super-diversity’ comes the benefits brought by migrants with diasporic connections; so an ability to work across borders in trade and commerce. Innovation, ideas generation, productivity and entrepreneurship also come from the melting pot of ideas and creativity generated in cities, as do economic benefits through the agglomeration effect of cities. There is a sense in which entrepreneurial people, those interested in developing new products and services, ‘select in’ to migration status. Studying these benefits is at an early stage, Max suggested, but there is some preliminary evidence for the positive impacts on economic growth of, particularly skilled, migration.

However, despite discussion of the positive benefits of migration in economic terms, however small, many ordinary citizens in the UK feel negatively about migration. They feel that their communities are changing, irrevocably and not for the better, and they may feel threatened by such changes. These views were discussed at length at the RGS-IBG 21st Century Challenges public discussion on ‘Integrated Britain?‘ on 15 March. The areas that have seen the greatest shifts in migrant share are ruralised, not urban locations. Boston in Lincolnshire has seen a 450 per cent increase in migrant share in the past decade. Max Nathan explained that this is equivalent to only just over 8,000 people, but to those living in Boston, despite the relatively small number of people (compared to Newham, in London, with 75,000 migrants coming to the Borough in the same period), the community must ‘feel’ different in some way.

An interesting question from the audience focused on why, if migration seems to have a limited economic impact, UK Government policy at present is aimed at making England a ‘hostile’ environment for migrants. Why is the narrative around migration framed as a ‘crisis’ and a ‘catastrophe’ when the actual economic impacts are small? Professor Crawley argued that discussion of a ‘crisis’ in Europe with respect to migration is not new but that in fact debate at the moment is being distorted by discussion around a very particular flow, from Syria in the main, at a very particular time, due to a very particular set of circumstances. She argued that policy-makers were treating the current situation in the Mediterranean and surrounding countries as if a homogeneous group of migrants had just decided to ‘hit the road’ and travel to Europe due to the attraction of welfare payments and relative economic security, which is not the case.

Professor Christina Boswell went further in analysing policy-makers current framing of discourse around immigration. Christina contrasted debates around migration in the late 1990s and early 2000s, under new Labour, with framings under the Coalition and current Government (2010 onwards). Christina suggested that there was a ‘technocratic turn’ to policy around immigration under New Labour, driven by positive economic circumstances and a New Labour narrative that was pro-business and pro-diversity, in the context of meeting the challenge of globalisation. Immigration policy at this time was, Christina suggested, an informed, economics and research-based rational reflection on the benefits of migration.

After 2004 and the accession of the A8 countries, the debate took a ‘democratic turn’, a situation where expert knowledge and evidence was no longer seen as more valuable than other forms of evidence, beliefs or interests. Expert knowledge began to be viewed, in dominant media and policy narratives, as the product of a liberal, metropolitan elite and therefore ‘out of touch’ with real people’s concerns. Latterly, under the Coalition and then Conservative Governments, the UK Independence Party began to gain traction and the Conservatives grew concerned about being ‘outflanked’ on immigration. The economic downturn channelled wider socio-economic concerns into concerns about immigration. In 2010, when Prime Minister David Cameron set a target to reduce net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’ by the end of that Parliament, a strong discourse began to emerge around the welfare burden of migration and, more recently, in the context of Britain’s relationship with Europe and a potential ‘Brexit’.

It may seem, from the discussion at the panel, that evidence is ignored and discounted by policy-makers in debates around migration; that therefore there is little point in geographers and others contributing research to policy at a time when the policy environment seems so unreceptive. Yet the panellists were clear that there is value in evidence – policy discourse around migration. A ‘democratic form of settlement’ is required, argued Christina, that is underpinned by available knowledge about immigration and its impacts. Political leadership is lacking at presented, argued the panellists, but this can change very quickly and there may be an environment in the future more receptive to those who wish to make a positive case for immigration. Likewise there is value in the ‘drip down’ effect of a body of evidence affecting political conciousness. Finally, both Max and Madeleine highlighted the value of institutions like the Migration Observatory and, particularly, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), the recommendations of which are routinely taken up by the Home Office.

Speakers were clear that immigration should be subject to democratic debate and that it raises significant issues about what sort of society we want to live in in the UK, about national identity and about changes to our communities that are happening for a range of reasons. However this deliberation should be informed by well-founded research and expert knowledge. The challenge, as outlined by Christina Boswell, is to create forums where expert knowledge and lay perspectives can meet and be discussed, to bridge silos between evidence-based and more populist perspectives on migration debates. The RGS-IBG has made an important contribution in bridging the academic/ practitioner and policy-maker divide through a knowledge exchange event; the next challenge is to bridge the gap between decision-makers, the media, academics and the public.

Image: Panel at 21st Century Challenges: Policy Forum, ‘Europe’s Migration Crisis?’, London, 22 March 2016
Copyright: Nando Machado