Embrace immigrants, whatever you vote on Thursday

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.

The African Exodus: A View from the Ground


Sunday’s El País carried a surprising article detailing the increase in immigration from Africa to Spain in the past two years.

Although Spain is in the midst of a debilitating economic crisis, with an unemployment rate of over 27%, the number of would-be migrants crossing the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco in the first quarter of 2013 has quadrupled compared with the corresponding period in 2012. Alarmingly, the proportion using inflatable rubber dinghies – the kind your kids play on at the beach – has risen from 15% to 90% in the past year. These dinghies are designed to be used by two people, but in the Strait they are often intercepted with up to ten on board (Spain’s coastguard has yet to hear of one that has completed the fourteen kilometre journey – the lucky ones are rescued before they sink). In Morocco, the market in these vessels is thriving – a 2-3 metre boat that can be had for €300 in the Spanish beach resorts will set you back over €600 in Tangiers.

This continued flow of migrants from Africa to Europe gives the lie to the “Africa Rising” story peddled by some Western media outlets of late. Although GDP is growing in many parts of the continent, most Africans see nothing of this. The millions who have migrated from villages to cities in search of a better life too often end up with nothing to do, and in their desperation are forced to look further afield, to Europe, for a way out of poverty (as the chief prosecutor in the Spanish port town of Algeciras noted, ‘many people would love to have our crisis’).

While researching my new book, The Ringtone and the Drum: Travels in the World’s Poorest Countries, which as well as analysing the great social upheavals the developing world is going through as it modernises is an attempt to give voice to the people experiencing these changes on the ground, I observed this frustration at first hand. The population of Bissau, the capital of the tiny West African nation of Guinea-Bissau which was the first stop on my trip, has quadrupled in the past thirty years. Whole villages in the interior have emptied out as the land has become too crowded to farm and the lure of modernity entices people to the cities. My wife Ebru and I spent a few weeks in one of Bissau’s poorest districts, where, as the excerpt below shows, urbanisation’s losers face a constant dilemma over whether they too should undertake the perilous journey to the West:

Since there is no power and the heat quickly rots anything perishable, Bissau’s residents must lay in a new supply of food each day. Every morning, therefore, we walk down the paved but potholed road that leads from our bairro to Bissau’s main market at Bandim. The market is a labyrinth, its narrow dark lanes winding between rickety wooden stalls whose tin roofs jut out threateningly at throat height. A press of brightly-dressed shoppers haggles noisily over tomatoes, onions, smoked fish and meat. The vendors know their customers – you can buy individual eggs, teabags, cigarettes, sugar lumps and chilli peppers; bread sellers will cut a baguette in half if that is all you can afford; potatoes are divided into groups of three, tomatoes into pyramids of four; matches are sold in bundles of ten, along with a piece of the striking surface torn from the box. In the days leading up to Christmas and New Year, which all Guineans celebrate regardless of their religious persuasion, the market is crowded and chaotic, but after the turn of the year, when all the money has been spent, it is empty and silent.

Only the alcohol sellers do a year-round trade. On a half-mile stretch of the paved road there are thirteen bars or liquor stores. They sell cheap Portuguese red wine, bottled lager, palm wine and cana, a strong rum made with cashew apples. Bissau has a drink problem. Its inhabitants’ love of alcohol is well-known throughout West Africa. Back in Senegal, a fellow passenger on one of our bush taxi rides had warned us that Guineans ‘like to drink and party but they don’t like to work.’ Later in our trip, on hearing we had spent time here, Sierra Leoneans would talk in awed tones of Guineans’ capacity for alcohol consumption. The liquor stores near our bairro are busy at all hours of the day and night. Christians and animists quaff openly, Muslims more discreetly.  Continue reading

The Enemy at the Gates

On a beach in Málaga the other day I asked a Senegalese handbag seller if the collapse of Spain’s economy, whose effect on business has made life increasingly difficult for the many African hawkers who work the sands of the Costa del Sol, had prompted him to consider returning to his native land. ‘No,’ he replied without hesitation. ‘Things are bad in Europe, but they are much worse in Africa. Unless you’re related to a government minister you can’t make a living there. People say Africa is improving, and there is a lot of money there, but only those in power see any of it. Everybody else is still poor.’

Bafflingly, the number of sub-Saharan Africans trying to breach Spain’s defences has mushroomed in the past few months. According to El País the number of migrants amassing at the border between Morocco and the Spanish North African enclave of Melilla has quadrupled this year from a rolling average of about 250 to 1,000. Only last week a group of 450 stormed the six-metre high fence that separates them from the country of their dreams; sixty made it through, and are now beginning the long struggle to find themselves a place in a rapidly shrinking economy.

Those who fail to make it over the fence either flee to the wooded hills overlooking the border or are arrested and taken in coaches to eastern Morocco, from where they begin again the gruelling slog towards Europe. Life in the border forests is hard. The Moroccan police, says El País, have stepped up their searches, rounding up hundreds of hopeful young migrants in recent weeks. Those who slip through the net, fearful of capture and the beatings that accompany every arrest, ‘no longer go down to the market in Beni Enzar at the end of the day to scavenge for scraps of food among the rubbish. Nor do they dare go to Farhana to beg for money and food, or to the springs for water…Survival has become very difficult.’

Spanish and Moroccan officials are perplexed by the sudden increase in numbers. Among the former are some who attribute it to deliberate laxity by the Moroccans, who they suspect of allowing more migrants to gather at the border in order to extract funds or some other political concessions from the Spanish government. Others ascribe the increase to the unrest in the Ivory Coast and Mali, and it appears that a large proportion of those camping out in the forests are from those two unstable nations and from impoverished Niger and Burkina Faso, which are struggling to deal with the fallout from their neighbours’ troubles.

Whatever the reasons, and despite the economic turmoil in Europe, the desperation of those who reach the border shows no signs of abating. ‘Even if it takes ten years and I have to live in this forest for those ten years,’ one Ivorian told El País, ‘I will make it into Melilla.’ A young Burkinabe, meanwhile, who has so far spent eight months sleeping under the trees and living on what he can find in rubbish bins, was equally vehement: ‘You say that Spain’s in crisis? That Europe’s in crisis? Africa’s worse than in crisis; it’s dead. My grandfather was poor. My father was poor. My mother was poor. I am poor. Whatever the crisis in Spain, I can’t imagine it can be any worse than what’s happening in my country.’

Migration and climate change: old assumptions and new ideas

I spent yesterday afternoon at the launch of the new Foresight report on Migration and Global Environmental Change, a study commissioned and led by the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir John Beddington.  Drawing on the best available science and analysis from other disciplines, the project aimed to develop a picture of how international and internal migration patterns might be affected by global environmental changes between now and 2060, and the implications of these developments for policymakers.

It is a substantial report, and looks like important reading for those working on migration, climate change and many other related issues.  It is also full of crunchy data and pretty charts, which always helps.   Some of the top-line conclusions are unsurprising.  It states that environmental change has a clear impact on migration through its influence on the web of political, economic and social drivers that lead people to move, and that this impact will only increase in the future as the world becomes more populated and as natural hazards proliferate.  It also argues that the complex interaction of drivers will lead to different migration outcomes, and that well-planned and coordinated policy responses will reduce the risks of humanitarian emergencies and displacement.  So far, so predictable.

However, some of its findings and recommendations are more counterintuitive, and should be studied carefully by policymakers.  Three in particular jumped out at me. Continue reading