I’ll never forget Adama Soro. Just 21-years old and from Cote d’Ivoire, he recently told me a heart-breaking story. I met Adama in Paris, while doing some research into social depravation in France. He was polite, articulate and spoke the most beautiful French. Yet, four years ago, Adama fled from his West African homeland and hitch-hiked across the Sahara to Libya. There, in his own words, he was “shot at by the police, arrested, beaten, tied-up and thrown in a tiny fishing boat”.
Over lunch, and then as we walked, Adama described how that boat was towed out to sea, then left to drift. “There were 25 of us and we had hardly any food and water,” he told me, as we wandered the French capital. “Only eight of us survived and made it to Italy,” Adama recalled, as tears came into his eyes. “I saw behavior on that boat I didn’t think was possible”.
As a long-time journalist, I reckon I have a good sense of when people are lying. Having spent several hours with Adama, I think he was telling the truth. I believe his village was torched in 2011, when former President Laurent Gbagbo spread havoc across Cote d’Ivoire, refusing to accept he’d lost the election. I also accept he “lived in an anti-Gbagbo region where young men were being thrown into jail” and was “on a death list”.
As well as believing him, I also admired Adama’s perseverance, and his often-stymied attempts to get a skilled-job and “make a new life, a good life in France”. I’m sure the horror of a 190-mile journey across the open sea in an unpowered boat, a distance seven-times the width of The Channel, will stay with him forever.
Immigration should be at the heart of this election campaign. The last Parliament ended with annual net migration of 300,000 – three times higher than the Conservatives promised. A poll last week suggested 60pc of voters are “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with the coalition’s handling of our national borders. Yet, so far, immigration is the campaign dog that hasn’t barked. Both main parties are mentioning the i-word as little as possible, calculating that to do so only benefits Ukip.
During the early part of last week, the silence on immigration was deafening. Even after 900 migrants perished when their boat sank while attempting the same journey as Adama Soro, little was said by the Labour and Tory leaders. After it emerged that up to 1,700 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean over the last fortnight, almost half the total deaths for the whole of 2014, there was a hastily-convened EU summit – and David Cameron was forced to talk. He pledged to send HMS Bulwark, three helicopters and two border patrol ships to the waters off Italy, as part of the EU’s effort “to crack down on people smuggling”, while insisting Britain won’t take any more refugees”.
I’ve argued in support of immigration into Britain for my entire adult life. I hail from a long line of Irish migrants, after all. The often painful and confusing process of leaving your home, and setting up elsewhere to try to better your life, is hard-wired into me. My mother is one of ten children – 6 of whom emigrated to America. On my father’s side, generations of Halligans have come from the West of Ireland, to build British roads and houses. So I totally understand the impulse to travel to find work.
As an economist, it’s also impossible not to recognize the benefits. Be they Huguenots or Jews, smart and ambitious immigrants have contributed for centuries to the British economy and culture. From the Irish to the wave of post-War Indian and Caribbean immigrants, workers born elsewhere have bolstered the UK’s labour force. As British demography changes, with the share of retirees rising, we also desperately need more tax-paying workers to support our ageing society. Again, immigration can help.
Yet, I despair at that lack of honest debate. For years, long-term residents in high-density immigrant neighborhoods, or those working in trades where immigrant labour is depressing wages, have felt abandoned and unrepresented. When the subject is publicly discussed, often in short bursts just before an election, many politicians play on fears and insecurities, stirring up racial tension.
Despite my background, and while supporting immigration in principle, I believe we do need to tighten our borders. The unrestricted movement of labour between EU countries simply isn’t sustainable – and, unless that policy changes, a wave of countries, including the UK, will end up voting to leave.
While I favour a US-style points-based system (PBS) that tries roughly to match skills needed with skills offered, the UK’s version – introduced by Labour in 2008 – is deeply dysfunctional. Because EU migration is uncontrollable, politicians constantly meddle with the PBS relating to non-EU migrants. Endless miniscule rule-changes, combined with our bad-tempered, finger-pointing debate, that swings between silence and outburst, has created a bureaucratic inflexibility among officials that too often produces cruel, illogical outcomes.
The UK needs to be “open for business” – and migrant workers are often vital. But there should also be a meaningful target range, or even cap, that maintains public confidence. That simply hasn’t happened, with the vast majority of UK immigrants now gaining official entry outside of the PBS or illegally. There is a pressing need, then, for process that sees industry, independent economists and elected politicians regularly coming together to openly set medium-term targets that are then strictly enforced for the number of work-permits the UK will issue annually.
Another aspect of building a credible immigration policy is to stem benefit tourism. While less common than popularly perceived, it has to be right that the UK – along with Germany and some other EU members – is now trying to restrict access to benefits for newly-arrival migrants. This is a tough area, of course, but the public finances of our fast-ageing, slow-growing economy are too fragile not to act. Both the Tory and Labour manifestos now recognize that reality.
We also obviously need to keep distinguishing, as clearly as is possible, between “asylum seekers” – that is, refugees – and economic migrants. The UK has a long tradition of accepting refugees, those fleeing from physical danger and persecution. That tradition must continue. Adama Soro was a refugee. With Libya torn among multiple, heavily-armed militias affiliated to certain regions and cities, and now lined-up behind two rival governments, there will be many more.
Admitting our share of refugees, though, in no way precludes a policy of controlled immigration that transparently admits workers with the skills we need, who then pay their taxes, make an economic contribution and work their immigrant magic on the UK’s broader society and culture.
The current system isn’t working. Our border controls are chaotic, with tens of thousands of immigrants disappearing into the informal economy each year. This stokes not only popular resentment and sporadic political posturing but also damaging backlash policies – such as giving immigrant students a hard time, even when they have places and funding for recognized courses at leading universities.
So, we need a PBS and a modification of the EU’s naïve and anti-democratic open-border policies – while remaining a haven for genuine refugees. We must also build a lot more homes, so our chronic housing shortage doesn’t fuel further anti-immigration rancor. The UK is a tolerant, open society, with a long tradition of taking in hard-working migrants – who are then welcomed. Unless the rules are clarified, and properly enforced, that tradition is now at risk.