Managed migration: a permanent crisis?

Managed migration: a permanent crisis?


Written by: Arun Kundnani

The Sunday Telegraph this week published a leaked memo revealing the latest u-turn in the government’s managed migration policy. And a new pamphlet from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants suggests we should expect more of these twists and turns in the future because managed migration is inherently prone to crisis.

The Commonwealth Working Holidaymaker scheme, which allows for people under the age of 30 to come to Britain for two years from Commonwealth countries, subsidising their stay with part-time work, is to have quotas imposed for the first time, to prevent ‘abuse from the New Commonwealth countries’, according to a leaked memo published in this week’s Sunday Telegraph. In other words, quotas are to be set for Asian and African countries while leaving untouched the ‘old Commonwealth’ – Australia, New Zealand and Canada – from where most Working Holidaymakers come.

The new quotas amount to a u-turn as, a year ago, the government introduced changes that were aimed at encouraging ‘young people from all parts of the Commonwealth’ to ‘provide more of the flexible labour that our economy and businesses need’. What has happened in the meantime? The government says that it is responding to a rise in applications from African and Asian countries. But such a rise was the intended outcome of the policy change introduced last year.

More relevant is the fact that the government has since been subjected to a vicious attack in the tabloids on its handling of immigration from eastern Europe, forcing Tony Blair to take personal charge of the issue. The earlier stated ambition to fine-tune immigration to meet the needs of British capitalism appears to have been adjusted to take account of the lessons of the tabloid campaign. The tabloids are apparently unlikely to attack an immigration scheme if its main beneficiaries are wealthy Whites from Australia or Poland. But the same scheme, if used by Roma, Indians, Pakistanis or Nigerians, would be a likely target for tabloid scaremongering. Thus, the racism of the tabloids has infected immigration policy. And the government has, to hide its racism, returned to the 1960s distinction between ‘new Commonwealth’ and ‘old Commonwealth’ countries – in reality a distinction between Black nations and White.


But, these accommodations to tabloid racism aside, can a managed migration policy be progressive, or is there an inherent tendency to racial categorisation? There are those who think that managed migration policy is the best way to free the issue of immigration from its legacy of racism, by giving a rational, economic basis for the operation of immigration controls. On the other side of the debate are those who say that managed migration is of itself likely to encourage racism because it treats immigrants as mere economic units.

A new pamphlet published by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) attempts to shed some light on this debate. The control of rights: the rights of workers and asylum seekers under managed migration, by Lydia Morris, describes managed migration as a system of ‘civic stratification’. This means that the twenty different routes into the labour market for migrants constitute a kind of sliding scale of rights, in which legal status and entitlements are issued or withdrawn according to a complex classificatory framework. The rights that exist for any category of migrant, such as rights to family union, support, settlement or citizenship, are dependent on a combination of skill level, nationality, gender and the original route of entry. Therefore the system as a whole becomes a way of controlling a growing section of the UK labour force, with asylum seekers particularly hard hit.


However, Morris also argues that the sheer complexity of the system gives it a ‘potentially disruptive effect on social cohesion’ and makes it inherently unstable, prompting endless re-adjustments of the kind witnessed this week. There are also unintended consequences, such as the presence of ‘undocumented migrants existing with minimal rights in the interstices of the informal economy’, some of which are asylum seekers, driven into the underground economy by the denial of benefits.

On the wider question of whether managed migration is an essentially exploitative system with racist tendencies, or whether it merely needs simplification and firmer grounding in human rights, Morris is oddly reticent. She argues that a system of stratification, such as managed migration, only becomes problematic if the status differences it generates ‘do not cut too deep’. The implication is that a progressive reform of the managed migration system is possible in which only gentle bruising is inflicted on its victims. Morris suggests two possible moves in this direction: for rejected asylum seekers ‘to earn their rights to stay through legitimate employment, and for clandestine workers to more easily regularise their presence’. But such measures are only hinted at and the pamphlet steers clear of a final political verdict on managed migration.

Related links

Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants

The control of rights: the rights of workers and asylum seekers under managed migration is published as part of JCWI's Immigration Rights Project. Copies can be obtained from JCWI, price £3.00, including postage. Please send cheques, made payable to 'JCWI' to Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, 115 Old Street, London EC1V 9RT. Tel: 020 7251 8708. Email:

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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