Migration: How to read its consequences


By Lord David Triesman, Executive Director, Salamanca Group

Few issues in modern politics are capable of raising as much passion as immigration. Of course, it is no new phenomenon. Great nations have risen on the tide of immigration, welcoming incomers and in many cases encouraging the poor but aspiring peoples of the world to their shores. Modern America was built on inward flows and subsequent movement across the continent. No economist doubts that this was the foundation of national wealth. Indeed it is wholly out of the American character to propose to build walls or ban peoples on the basis of their religions.

Yet a tangible anxiety has arisen in Europe based on ignorance of the real scale of movement and a sense it isn’t possible to contain the causes. Fleeing conflict is easy to understand – nobody puts their babies in a rubber dingy on a winter swept sea unless what you leave behind frightens you more than the risks ahead. Other factors promoting movement are not as intelligible, though in fact they are hardly less real. Escaping the virtual prison camp that is Eritrea, the fear of famine and murder in Mogadishu, or the ever-encroaching deserts of North Sudan all bear in on families.

So what do we know about the scale of flows? People cross from the Middle East to Europe largely through Greece on the Eastern Mediterranean route. In 2014 50,834 identified individuals came that way. In 2015 the number reached 885,386. Migrants in 2015 from sub-Saharan Africa on the Central Mediterranean route across the lengthy sea routes numbered 153,956, down from over 170,000 the year before. On the smaller Western Mediterranean route to southern Spain, in 2015 there were 7,164.

It is easy to say this feels like spurious accuracy given the clandestine operations. The figures are compiled by Frontex from EU, Médecins Sans Frontières, and a host of NGO sources. Collected independently, they are remarkably consistent. Naturally, they take no account of migration within the EU where data is collected by individual nations.

The data on the economic impact of new arrivals is interesting. The fear factor is they will use a disproportionate amount of the social and health provision to which they haven’t contributed. But the data suggests a different picture with taxes collected after a year in the UK exceeding the sums spent on migrants. And the jobs taken are strongly correlated with jobs British citizens are very reluctant to do. Migrants are mission critical to the care of the elderly, other parts of the Health Service, catering and leisure, agricultural work and, famously, construction. Building in Britain is heavily dependent on skilled craftsmen from Europe and increasingly on unskilled workers from everywhere. Our age-old crisis in skills training post-school is deepening.

Naturally, the myths always out-compete the facts. But a hard look shows economic advantages in several respects. It is hardly surprising that employers want the option to choose the workforce best suited to the job. This is apparent across Europe’s advanced economies. I recall many discussions in Germany after re-unification where employers emerging in the East complained of the rush to live and work in the West having wanted, but been denied the opportunity for so long. It left a short-fall in professions and skills in the East. Several entrepreneurs and state officials have told me somewhat wryly, the influx of well-educated Syrians was the transfusion they had dreamed of for years. What they wanted was an orderly system to recruit and admit people.

The flows will continue. The multiple NATO and EU naval missions were designed to discourage smugglers and put them out of business. Operations Sophia and Triton have repealed almost no one and they will get no better. For a start they are ill-coordinated. Rather the missions have become necessity search and rescue missions which will land their cargoes of rescued migrants in Europe. And people will continue to make the irregular but voluntary journey to Europe’s borders. If the alternatives are the barrel bombs, the perils behind will always be worse.

As the outstanding researcher Peter Roberts of the Royal United Services Institute put it twelve months ago, ‘migrants in boats are symptoms, not causes, of the problem’. Whilst business cannot ignore the concerns of the old and settled populations of Europe or the opportunity for demagogues to exploit fear, there is also a clear case for the economic benefits alongside the humanitarian ones.

This article is part of our June 2016 Private Office Newsletter.

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