The hardline message of the new report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) on irregular immigration is designed to reassure working-class voters that a Labour government would control immigration.
The IPPR, an influential think-tank with strong links to the Labour Party, starts with the policy position that ‘irregular immigration’ must be reduced, because of its social costs and pressure on local services, and the damage a ‘shadow’ economy of exploited irregular migrants does to the fabric of the UK. In the past, the IPPR’s favoured means of reducing irregularity was a large-scale regularisation programme, which protects workers’ rights and brings them out of the ‘shadows’. But in its latest report, No easy options: irregular immigration in the UK, it turns away from the regularisation policy and instead, with regret, embraces tougher controls: pre-entry, on entry, and enforcement. What’s more, it believes it is the civic duty of migrant support organisations, particularly publicly funded ones, to assist in returns programmes. Why this change of heart?
The study agrees that ‘irregular’ migrants probably represent a net benefit to the economy, allow firms to overcome bottlenecks caused by recruitment problems’; they are not taking ‘British’ jobs as they work in sectors and regions with a high level of hard-to-fill vacancies; they are not reducing ‘British’ wages because ‘the minimum wage segments the labour market and reduces the transmission of wage effects from those working below it to those above’; and that they ‘tend to locate themselves in ‘marginal niches’, blending into society in ways that make them almost unnoticed (particularly in big global cities like London) and generally living lives that are indistinguishable from others around them’. So why has ‘irregular immigration’ suddenly become a big issue which we must all rally round to combat? Especially when, as IPPR has long argued, ‘the multiple push and pull factors which drive individuals to migrate, and the complex and interlocking demographic, economic, social and cultural forces which shape migration flows, will be more significant determinants of the size and make-up of such flows than any system of immigration control.’
Changing position on regularisation
To answer this question, it is useful to look at the purposes of the policy change. The report acknowledges that irregular migration can only ever be contained, not abolished or even significantly reduced – but one of the main purposes of the switch in policy is to ‘increase public confidence in the integrity of the immigration system’ – in other words, persuade working-class voters that immigration is under control. It is perhaps no coincidence that the IPPR’s Marc Shears is one of the leading lights of ‘Blue Labour’, a group which aims to ‘reposition’ the Labour Party as the party of the (indigenous) working class, one which listens to the Gillian Duffys and responds to their concerns, in response to the loss of four million working-class votes since 1997. In an Observer interview on 24 April, Blue Labour key thinker Maurice Glasman, a lecturer and ‘community organiser’ who worked on the London Citizens’ ‘Living Wage’ campaign, made the cryptic observation, that he learned from this that ‘unless there were effective organisations, immigration led to a double exploitation, of the immigrants and of the locals’.
It is this imperative which has led IPPR to abandon the liberal option of regularisation as ‘not politically viable’. It quotes a ‘major international survey’ (Transatlantic Trends 2010) showing that 71 per cent of UK respondents are worried by irregular immigration, and 90 per cent agree with the need for stronger border measures and tougher penalties on employers, to argue that regularisation on a large scale is not an option ‘at least for a decade’ in the current political climate, and to justify leaving its liberal past behind – despite the fact that if opinion polls really led policy we would probably still have capital punishment and homosexuality could well still be outlawed. With what looks like unseemly relish, the IPPR embraces and demands more of the whole panoply of measures to stop ‘irregulars’ (in its unpleasant term) leaving their countries of origin, travelling through transit countries, and being admitted to the UK. The e-Borders programme, for example, raises ‘privacy and civil liberties issues … But from the relatively narrow perspective of reducing irregular immigration, it is hard to argue against [them]’. This same approach informs IPPR’s attitude to carrier sanctions, employer sanctions, internal control measures such as biometric identity cards, and to a robust returns programme.
Since this is an IPPR, not a UKBA report, this will all be done, of course, with the greatest respect. And there are sheep and goats, deserving and undeserving ‘irregulars’ of course. Some ‘irregulars’ are more harmful than others; ‘marginal irregulars’ should get the velvet glove of a temporary bridging visa and time to pack their things and say their goodbyes, or perhaps even ‘quiet regularisation’, while the ‘manifest’ irregulars, including the criminal and the serially non-compliant should get the iron fist (albeit with a fistful of dollars to make a fresh start back home – perhaps in a British Embassy-funded soap about the perils of irregular migration, another IPPR brainwave). But this dichotomy of good and bad migrants ignores the fact that many of the ‘criminal’ group arrived as young children or have young children born and brought up here; the world is not so black and white. And too, there is a failure to recognise the myriad ways in which people are forced into irregularity, rather than it being for most a conscious, rational ‘strategy’.
The humane credentials of this erstwhile left-leaning think-tank are displayed in various points along the way – the asylum determination system should be outsourced to an independent agency to improve confidence in it; denial of subsistence should not be used as a tool to force people out; the use and length of detention should be dramatically reduced (although not the use of fast-track procedures); ‘battering-ram’ raids are an inefficient use of resources and are rarely necessary. But at the end of the day, ‘irregulars’ must be made to realise that there is only one option for them, which is to go home – and forced return must be realistic and ‘imminent’. Organisations which help them ‘should be active in encouraging and facilitating their immigrant clients to be fully compliant and to cooperate with the relevant authorities throughout the immigration process, including on returns … It is not unrealistic to expect civic society – often part-funded by the state – to support democracy and the rule of law in the UK, including when they find it uncomfortable to do so’. This is co-option with a vengeance. Presumably funding is to be withdrawn from non-compliant organisations.
The measures suggested by IPPR to ‘compensate’ for its tough stance on ‘irregular’ immigration – opening up a legal avenue for unskilled work, enabling asylum seekers to get to the UK legally by granting a protection visa to those showing a strong prima facie case, ensuring that determination procedures and decisions do justice – simply will not happen; there is no political will for them, and IPPR itself acknowledges this, indeed builds its whole case on the unwillingness of government to do justice to migrant rights. It is ‘troubling’ but ‘understandable’, the report says, that the UK, in common with all the other EU member states, has failed to sign up to the Migrant Workers’ Convention: ‘Ultimately, a country like the UK is not going to accept the extension of immigrants’ rights where this would impede its ability to control its borders and enforce its immigration system.’
One way compliance
This is perhaps the report’s central flaw. There is no acknowledgement here that government compliance with international law norms by extending basic working rights and the protection of the law to all workers, is a more effective answer to exploitation, and to resentment by indigenous workers, than clamping down further on the ‘lowest of the low’. The social costs of irregular migration – the existence of a shadow, rightless underclass which is bad for ‘the fabric of the UK’ – can be better met by an insistence on rights for the rightless than by the project (acknowledged by IPPR to be impossible) of getting rid of them. As for social costs in terms of pressure on services, why does the report make no mention of, let alone argue for a reversal of the massive cuts imposed working-class communities – including the abolition of the Migration Impacts Fund, which was expressly designed to deal with some of these social costs (and was paid for by a levy on migrants themselves)? Surely it is only by such methods – extending workers’ protection to all, and investing in community infrastructure – that genuine solidarity can be built?
But the IPPR is not concerned to demonstrate the effect of Tory cuts on working-class communities, or to demand government compliance with basic international obligations. Compliance is all one way. There is nothing that can be done about government policy, except to make it more humane at the edges; that’s the way of the world. The cry of one of the interviewees, a Ukrainian woman, hangs in the air: ‘Why are they [people from Britain/EU, etc] allowed to go to any part of the world and we are not? [Why] our right should remain restricted? In what way we are worse than them?’
IPPR’s message in this report is that the government has to be seen to be tackling irregular migration in order to undermine hostility to migration in general. But as we know from the Blair/Blunkett years, this is a very dangerous strategy indeed. Then, tough messages on tackling ‘bogus’ asylum seekers simply encouraged the tabloids and whipped up popular racism. The danger is that by going with the right-wing flow, IPPR will end up doing the same.
Download a copy of No easy options: irregular immigration in the UK here
Read an IRR News story: ‘Creating common sense racism – its election time again’