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Migration and the liberal dilemma

March 5, 2018 2:04 PM
By Lord William Wallace in Liberal Democrat Voice

The Spring conference will be discussing migration policy in Southport, on the basis of a carefully-written consultation paper. This is a particularly difficult topic for Liberals. Almost all of us would prefer to live in a world in which borders were open, and immigrants and refugees were welcomed. But global population growth, combined with state collapse, civil conflict and climate change, are combining to create a rising flow of migrants - driven both by political disorder and economic deprivation - towards the safe and prosperous countries of Western Europe. Many of them are trafficked on their way, maltreated as they struggle to escape danger and better their lives. How can we respond without abandoning our liberal values?

Taking back control of our borders was one of the most powerful messages of the Leave campaign. Migration Watch helped the Brexiteers to blur the differences between immigration from other EU countries (significant but within limits, as populations across the EU are stable or falling) and from the rest of the world. The 3.6 million citizens from elsewhere in the EU in the UK in 2016 were, on Migration Policy Institute figures, three times the number in 2005. Many have been recruited directly by British employers (including the NHS), often to fill skill shortages, sometimes because the jobs or pay on offer did not attract willing British applicants. One answer to this, which the Consultation paper doesn't mention, is to invest more in skills and training within the UK. The sharp fall in the number of new apprenticeships in 2017 shows that we are moving in the wrong direction; cuts in funding for schools and FE colleges will make the situation worse, and increase our dependence on external recruitment.

What Migration Watch and Brexit Central don't say is that the longer-term challenge we face is from immigration from outside Europe - and that it's a challenge that we can only manage in collaboration with our continental neighbours. The population of Africa has doubled (to 1.2 billion) in the past 30 years, and continues to grow at over 30 million a year; weak states, conflict and drought all drive desperate efforts to escape across the Mediterranean. The Middle East and South Asia also have high rates of population increase, water shortages, and governments failing to provide stability and economic growth. One estimate, for example, suggests that depletion of water will force 15 million Iranians to migrate within the next 20 years; civil war in Syria, and endemic conflict in Afghanistan, already drive a flow of desperate migrants towards the safe havens of Western Europe and North America.

That level of pressure makes the consultation's objective of a 'fair and humane' response to migrants (many of whom will be refugees from intolerable local circumstances) almost impossible: numbers count, and large numbers of incomers are difficult to absorb without weakening social cohesion and straining resources. An enlightened response to this must include active support for women's rights and education in these regions - the surest way to slow population growth, amongst other advantages. Development policy, and defence policy, need to focus (with European partners) on the delicate tasks of building stable and effective governance, and sustainable economies, in Africa and West and South Asia, to enable their population to flourish there.

The consultation paper rightly notes the weaknesses of the UK Border Force - its numbers cut in recent years - and of Home Office management of immigration. It does not directly address the awkward question that the UK's lack of a population register - or some form of identity registration - makes the task of assuring that all those living within our borders are entitled to do so extremely difficult. That's another uncomfortable issue for Liberals (me included). Nor, in the useful section on social cohesion, does it confront the contradiction between ensuring that all existing citizens have rights and that newcomers are fairly treated. An American commentator has coined the phrase 'aggrieved entitlement' to describe the attitudes of their white working class to jobs and benefits given to minorities and new arrivals.

I don't have answers to these dilemmas. And I recognise that the British public, to whom we wish to appeal, are at best wavering liberals on this. In Ripon Cathedral, in mid-referendum campaign, I set out the European migration issue, and argued that the church-going audience had to consider 'who is my neighbour'. After a break into smaller groups for discussion, one responded that 'we have been discussing who is NOT my neighbour'. But we need a defensible position, which can persuade a significant proportion of the voters to trust us on migration, and the consultation paper takes us usefully in that direction.

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.