Embrace immigrants, whatever you vote on Thursday

by | Jun 20, 2016


A couple of weeks ago, realising that it was struggling to make a convincing economic case for Britain to leave the European Union, the Brexit campaign switched the focus of its message to the threat posed to Britain by immigration. Almost immediately, Vote Leave surged in the polls. The bookmakers’ odds against Britain leaving the EU plummeted, from 5-1 in May to around 7-4 last week. The Leave campaign had found the Philosopher’s Stone.

Leave or remain, therefore, immigration matters to Britons – whatever happens on 23 June, concern over it will not go away. But while the case against immigration has been made repeatedly and vehemently by the Leave campaign and an often-rabid tabloid press, few prominent figures, and nobody in the Remain campaign, have put forward a cogent case in its favour. Boris Johnson, a descendant of immigrants who is now the leader of the Brexiteers, claimed in 2013: ‘I am probably the only politician I know of who is willing to stand up and say that he’s pro-immigration.’ Now that Johnson has changed his mind, there is nobody left to make the case.

As an immigrant myself, formerly to Spain and more recently to Tanzania, I would urge those fearful of immigration to reconsider. Migration is one of the good things about the EU, not one of its flaws. Regardless of Thursday’s result, Britain will be a poorer place if it closes its doors.

The ethical case for immigration to rich countries is easily made. Those of us who were born in Britain won life’s lottery. We were about five times more likely to have been born in a developing country than in the developed world, with atrocious healthcare, bad schools and no jobs. We were as likely to be born in the Democratic Republic of Congo as in Britain, and to have our lives racked by war and disease, our life expectancy slashed by 20 years, and our incomes (and our purchasing power) reduced by 99%.

But we were born in Britain, and having benefited from such a stroke of luck, many of us wish to exclude everyone else from sharing in our booty. At least part of the reason why Britain is rich and developing countries poor is because it enslaved and colonised some of them, plundering their resources and destroying the lives of their most talented people. Even if this were not the case, however (or if you disagree with this analysis), it still seems incoherent for a society that values equality of opportunity to limit this to those born within its borders. It is akin to allowing only winners of the National Lottery to get jobs, while everyone else must languish in poverty. Yes, there are only so many jobs to go around (although as job-rich, immigrant-rich America shows, migrants create jobs as well as filling them), and integrating new arrivals is difficult and will take time, but unless we value somebody born in a distant corner of Britain more highly than someone born in a different corner of the globe just because he or she is a lottery winner like us, our aspiration – as Christians or devotees of other faiths, as democrats or egalitarians, or simply as unselfish, big-spirited people – should be to share the opportunities, not hoard them.

Many won’t be convinced by this, but what of a less high-minded argument? Immigrants create jobs and do the jobs native workers don’t want to do, but they also take jobs, with low-wage native workers particularly vulnerable to being undercut by new arrivals. The net economic effect on receiving countries is disputed, with the balance of research suggesting it’s broadly positive but not by much. There is a strong case for compensating the small minority of domestic workers who suffer from immigration, just as there is a strong case for providing safety nets to those whose jobs are taken by cheaper workers overseas, or for those whose jobs disappear under the advance of new technologies.

But the effect on migrants themselves is almost never mentioned in such discussions. Migrants are people too, and the economic impact of migration on migrants is enormously positive. If it wasn’t, they wouldn’t leave their homes and their often very close-knit families to do it. And as well as improving their own living standards, economic migration also improves the lives of those they leave behind. Migrants – be they from Poland, Ireland or Senegal – send money back to their families, to feed and clothe them, to help them in times of distress, to put their younger relatives through school, or to help them set up businesses. Many migrants eventually go back to their home countries and start businesses themselves. All this spurs the economic development of these countries, and economic development of other countries helps Britain. It means, for example, that British exporters will have more and wealthier customers, and that British consumers will have access to cheaper, better goods. By making countries more stable, it means Britain won’t have to send troops to tackle conflicts or have to accommodate large numbers of refugees from such conflicts. It means Britain won’t have to spend so much on overseas aid (aid to poor countries from rich countries is already dwarfed by migrants’ remittances, and unlike aid this money goes directly into poor people’s hands). And in the long run, it will probably mean less immigration to Britain, too.

As well as being a migrant myself, I have a second personal interest in this topic. Like the UKIP leader Nigel Farage, I am the husband of an immigrant. Farage’s wife is German, mine Turkish, of that tribe whose vilification (by a campaign led by a descendant of Turks, Boris Johnson) helped swing the polls in Brexit’s favour. My wife’s opportunities in life increased greatly when she moved to Britain, and she now works as an English teacher and teacher trainer overseas. Turkey, contrary to what the Leave campaigners want you to believe, has no chance of joining the European Union in the foreseeable future. But keeping Britain’s doors open to people like her from both inside and outside the EU is not only the right thing to do, it’s the sensible thing to do.

Author

  • Mark Weston

    Mark Weston is a writer, researcher and consultant working on public health, justice, youth employability and other global issues. He lives in Sudan, and is the author of two books on Africa – The Ringtone and the Drum and African Beauty.


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