Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)



  Q100  Mr Winnick: Dr Koser, the impression is sometimes given that Britain has taken in the last half century more migrants than other nearby western European countries, France, Germany and the rest, and therefore they paint a scenario where we have such a terrible burden, as they put it in so many words, as compared to our EU neighbours in western Europe. What would be your response to that, Dr Koser, Mr Harris?

  Dr Koser: I am afraid I do not have the data to hand but if you are looking at regular legal migration of workers and people joining family members, then I am certainly not aware that the UK has had a particular high proportion of migrants. I think the figures you are referring to, and perhaps are often referred to in the media, concern asylum seekers and perhaps irregular migrants. Perhaps I can say a few words about each of those. It is true that certainly up to the mid-1990s the UK did attract very large numbers of asylum seekers, more I think than most other European countries. In the past two or three years those numbers have declined very significantly. From the Home Office figures the number of asylum applications in the UK has gone down really rather dramatically and it has now been overtaken as the main source country in Europe for asylum seekers by, I believe, France and Germany. Turning to irregular migrants, of course that is the main concern for many people in the media and many parts of the public. The simple truth is we do not know the numbers involved and I think any speculation is really rather difficult and rather dangerous.

  Professor Harris: Just on asylum seekers, of course the British figures did not reach the level of the Germans in the early 1990s with the break-up of Yugoslavia. Germany went through a period of very rapid increase in asylum seekers which, if I am not mistaken, in absolute terms was larger than that in Britain, so one cannot identify the British as a special case in any of those respects. Where it might be seen as a special case is in economic migration in the second half of the 1990s into the next century because Britain has changed its immigration policy to recruit economic migrants particularly from the new accession states and that is quite different from France and Germany which have experienced economic stagnation whereas Britain has had a very tight labour market. That is something special in the European context but that is because of deliberate government policy.

  Q101  Chairman: Dr Koser, just so we understand your work, the UN work has been based on governmental figures and as you said it is very difficult to measure irregular migration. Some of the witnesses to our inquiry have said that the whole problem with these figures is that there are whole flows of people who are irregular, who are illegal, who are not counted by the figures, so you cannot produce a global or national or regional picture based on official statistics. Is that a fundamental problem with the work the UN has been doing here? Is one of the reasons why the figure of migration is apparently so small on a global scale that large parts of this are simply not counted by anybody both within developed countries and within less developed countries?

  Dr Koser: Yes I think you are quite right of course to point out the difference between developed and developing countries. We in the UK have a very advanced system of censuses, counting systems, the labour force survey, and so on and so forth. We have one of the best systems for counting migrants and we do not know how many irregular migrants come to our country, so it is not surprising that poorer countries in the world simply have no idea at all. So, yes, there is no doubt that official statistics on migration that only record legal migrants would have to be multiplied by some factor which we simply do not know to get a full picture of the entire migration taking place in the world. Having said that, I think you are right to point out that most people in the world do not migrate. Something like 3% of the world's population are migrants, and the reasons people stay at home are because they like staying at home, because of inertia, because of social networks that keep them at home, because of some of the traumas involved with moving, and migration control as well. I think people are recognising that it can be quite difficult to move to the countries to which they move. Migration is a relatively small proportion of the world's population.

  Professor Harris: Just to add to that, when we talk about "at home" we are talking about national entities, we are talking about migration between countries. Something like 80% to 90% of the world's migration is internal. In China there are 98 million people living outside their province of birth, India has enormous movements of millions of people internally, so all we are speaking about is that the external migration is tiny in comparison to the internal migration.

  Dr Koser: Of course we all recognise that the statistics are very difficult for irregular migration. I think the other point to make about irregular migration is that it is actually quite a broad category of people. We are not talking about people who cross borders illegally without passports in the back of trucks and so on and so forth. A large proportion of irregular migrants are people who have entered legally and then for example overstayed visas. One of Australia's main irregular migration problems is UK students with short term work permits who have overstayed their visas, so irregular migration is not just about people crossing borders in an irregular or illegal fashion.

  Q102  Chairman: Just to move on, in your UN report you recommended that there should be improved coherence, consultation and co-operation at national, regional and global level. My first question is: if these flows are so difficult to do much about in the long term, what is it you hope to achieve by more coherent policies and more developed co-operation at national and regional level?

  Dr Koser: If I could just correct one thing before I answer the question. This report was written by an independent Commission although it was reported to the United Nations. It was set up at the behest of the United Nations Secretary General but written by an independent Commission. Let me speak on behalf of the Commission rather than my own personal views here. I believe the Commission believes quite strongly that, as you indicate, migration is inevitable and it will continue to be so for the foreseeable future because of differentials in demography, in development, and in democracy, and I think the Commission believes quite strongly that at the moment the world is not taking full advantage of the potential benefits of migration. Too many migrants are moving in an irregular fashion. Too many migrants are not being able to realise the skills they have. Too many migrants are being smuggled and trafficked. I think there is also great concern about the human rights abuses and other abuses of the migrants who are moving. I believe the Commission's opinion was that this is a fact of life, migration will continue, but let's try to make sure it takes in place in a more orderly fashion that respects the rights of migrants and makes sure that both sending states and receiving states can somehow benefit from that migration. The Commission was not about trying to stop migration; it was about trying to make migration more successful.

  Q103  Chairman: From a personal point of view, because I think that is the only way to pose the question, how well would you say the British Government's current and projected policies match up against that aspiration in the United Nations?

  Dr Koser: I will talk about the Commission and then myself. The Commission made a point of not naming and shaming specific countries.

  Q104  Chairman: That is why I asked you personally.

  Dr Koser: We have had quite significant consultations on the basis of this report with the UK Government and I think the UK Government has a fairly coherent and co-ordinated and comprehensive approach to migration. Being honest, I think certain parts of the Government would admit there is a degree of lack of coherence and perhaps, for example, there is not enough co-ordination between the Home Office which has certain control-orientated agendas and DFID which has clearly a development-orientated agenda. To give you a very good example, it is very hard to see how the UK can promote achieving the Millennium Development Goals in poorer parts of the world such as Africa and at the same time allow recruitment agents to bring in doctors and nurses from poorer parts of the world. That strikes me as a classic example of incoherence and confusion about the direction of the Government, and there perhaps should be more co-ordination between different parts of government. I think on issues such as consultation the British Government is very good at consulting experts and academics and trying to speak to the media and NGOs and civil society and so on and so forth. Do not forget this report tried to take a global perspective. Many of its recommendations do not apply to the UK because the UK has pretty good policy but of course it is also trying to speak to Mozambique and other poorer countries in the world at the same time.

  Professor Harris: The report produced by the Migration Commission finds that UK immigration policy has failed on three grounds. I have to say that the criterion of what is a successful immigration policy is the area of dispute. Is it stopping all immigration? Is it getting the immigration that you want in terms of the labour market or in terms of many other criteria? So the criteria are where the dispute is. We find on the criteria that we adopted that British immigration policy has failed on three grounds. Firstly, it has not met the labour needs of the British economy and irregular migration is the measure of its failure to do so and indeed continuing labour scarcities within the economy. Secondly, it has failed because it has sacrificed the human rights of the migrants in doing so in managing a regime which is exceedingly brutal in terms of the irregular migrants coming in and going out of the country. Thirdly, it relies on stripping the third world of its human capital, the same point that Dr Koser made. On those three grounds it is incoherent. It fails on the central issue of not meeting British labour demand, which is what the Labour Government in 1997 was moving towards. In sum, it has failed on those grounds.

  Chairman: We will come back to each of those points in due course. Janet Dean?

  Q105  Mrs Dean: What practical measures is the UN taking to encourage a coherent global response to migration and what impact will these have on the UK?

  Dr Koser: Again, I worked for the independent Global Commission rather than the United Nations. What the Commission has been doing has been trying to disseminate this report widely which, as the Chairman has indicated, speaks about coherence and a more comprehensive approach. It has been trying to address governments, indeed this Government, we met with Tony McNulty just before Christmas, and has been trying to promote the principles in the report. I have to be honest, in my opinion one of the problems with migration management is that most states see it as a question of state sovereignty and national priorities and are not willing to listen to an international body such as the Commission or for that matter the United Nations. It seems to me the great contradiction in migration today is that it is a global issue that people try to manage at a national level I think that is a contradiction that is regrettable. My own personal opinion is that reports like this will not have much impact on the large, advanced immigration countries such as the UK, Australia, Canada, the USA because I believe that they are not willing to be told what to do by an outside independent body, and that is my opinion on that.

  Q106  Mrs Dean: In your own view though what more could the UN do to try and get countries to look more globally rather than at their own national situation?

  Dr Koser: Again, I cannot speak for the UN because I am not a UN employee, but in my opinion, given its limited resources and given its political constraints, the UN needs to adopt a triage approach and look at the really problematic issues and, frankly, the really problematic issues are not immigration control in the UK, they are refugee movements in the south, they are human trafficking and human smuggling and so on and so forth. So I would not be surprised if the UN focused on what I suspect they and I certainly believe to be the truly important migration issues. Again I think it is important for all of us to put our concerns about national migration policies into a broader global context, and in that context the UK has not got much of a concern.

  Q107  Mrs Dean: The report outlines the enormous changes that are taking place in the global economy and the impacts of globalisation on national labour markets, and concludes that states should pursue more realistic and flexible approaches to international migration based on a recognition of the potential for migrant workers to fill specific gaps in the global labour market. Does the Commission consider that the UK's "Managed Migration" policies fulfil this definition?

  Dr Koser: The Commission does not comment on the UK's policy specifically. Speaking personally if I may, and I reflect here what Professor Harris says, migration is not a silver bullet. Migration alone cannot fill the demographic deficits that we have in this country, solve our pension crisis and fill labour market gaps, but it is certainly one part of a broad suite of policies that can go some way towards resolving these pressing problems that we are about to experience in the UK. I think I would agree with Professor Harris that thus far migration has not been used in as effective a way as it might have been to begin to address some of these issues. I think Professor Harris is exactly right, the fact that certain parts of the economy, not just in the UK but in many other advanced countries, effectively rely on irregular migration is a perfect example of the fact that we are not making migration policy work. It appears that we need the labour migrants in certain parts of the economy but we are not allowing them to come in in a regular fashion, and I think that is an incoherence that needs to addressed. The Commission suggests, and this is controversial and it deserves more discussion and more thought, that one way to resolve this would be to introduce more temporary migration programmes. I think it recognises that there is a great political unwillingness to countenance large-scale permanent migration and that perhaps temporary labour migration might be one way to overcome the labour market gaps, at the same time being politically palatable. As I say, there are problems as well with temporary migration.

  Professor Harris: We agree. Our Commission also thought that was the way to move. More importantly in terms of the scarcity of skilled labour, particularly among medical professionals, there is a need for partnership with developing countries. That is to say the Government of the UK and the Government of India in a partnership managing the circulation of health professionals. Instead of Britain just stealing the health professionals from sub-Saharan Africa or from India, it could enter into a partnership in which health professionals circulate so that it is not a one-way flow. That is to say, doctors come here, have their professional experience enriched, then return home without loss of seniority, et cetera. We are attempting at the moment to enter into discussions with DFID about how far we can begin some pilot schemes here because it seems to me that the world should move towards a global management of health professionals, in this case, but if we cannot get that we should seek a bilateral management of the movement of health professionals, which would be to the advantage of India because it does not lose its doctors permanently, it has their professional experience enriched by their working overseas, and which would be to the advantage of Britain which is able to staff its National Health Service.

  Q108  Gwyn Prosser: Dr Koser, in your exchanges with the Chairman this morning you have been using the terms "irregular" migration and "illegal" migration. Is there a difference between these terms or are they interchangeable?

  Dr Koser: Yes, they are used interchangeably but the Commission decided that "illegal" migration is a particularly pejorative term that makes people feel marginalised and unwanted and so the Commission made the decision not to use that rather commonly used term and instead to use the term "irregular status", so I think the report refers to "migrants in an irregular status".

  Q109  Gwyn Prosser: Both your report and the RSA's report tend to conclude that irregular migration is almost a product or certainly directly connected to the international global situation and it is likely to remain that way and the situation to grow. In that context, is there any advantage in governments just accepting that as the position rather than clamping down on borders and cracking down on irregular or illegal migration?

  Dr Koser: I cannot speak for the RSA report but this report does not say that irregular migration is inevitable, if I can use that word; it says migration is inevitable. The fact that it is irregular is because there are not enough regular opportunities for people to move in a regular fashion. I think it would be fairly unacceptable for any country, particularly an advanced country such as the UK, to simply say we accept that some people move in an irregular fashion and work in an irregular way. The reason is because of course many of these people have their human rights abused and jeopardised. The great mystery about irregular migration is we do not know how many people there are out there in the world who are trying to get for example to the UK but at the moment are stuck in Bulgaria working as prostitutes, or whatever it may be. There is a large number of people who are migrants in an irregular fashion who are vulnerable in many ways. The UK certainly cannot just sit back and say, we accept this is going to happen, we accept it will fill certain labour market gaps, so let's just allow that to happen. I just do not think it is an acceptable thing for an advanced economy to do.

  Professor Harris: Irregular migration is very interesting because it is the real world labour market operating in the domestic economy and it cannot be controlled while labour market demand remains so high in Britain. It is absolutely impossible to force any government to use physical force to prevent workers moving to work, which is effectively what this is about. There are all sorts of ways of looking at that but can I make two points. The first is that when people ask how many, it assumes that there is a fixed movement from country A to country B and settlement in country B in an irregular status. That is not the case. It is constantly moving. We are now building for the Olympic Games in Stratford and certainly it will increase the level of irregular migration into Britain for the period of construction. As with any big construction project, it is labour demand which is the source of the issue. The only way in my Commission's belief to control irregular migration is to recognise existing labour demand and to allow employers within whatever framework to recruit directly. Without that we are feeding a black economy and a larger and larger part of the British economy is slipping below the statistical threshold, which means of course that macroeconomic policy begins to look pear-shaped, ie it is impossible if you do not even know what the size of the labour force is you cannot begin to manage the economy in any sensible way. So the black economy is at the end. That is not an immigration problem; that is a problem of people operating outside the official economy to be dealt with as a separate issue regardless of immigration. Immigration undoubtedly feeds that, as it does also with all the other illicit international transactions in narcotics, in trafficking, et cetera, et cetera, so it is the disappearance of the economy which is at stake here, the disappearance of the British economy into the statistically unrecorded and the disappearance of the international economy. While governments remain the central issue in regulating it, they have to find means of managing the black economy.

  Q110  Gwyn Prosser: Dr Koser, although our inquiry is not specifically about asylum we are interested in the connection between asylum and immigration. It has been said that the overemphasis on the crackdown on illegal or irregular immigration can have the effect of not giving the protection and support we should be giving under our obligations to the genuine asylum seeker. Is there any way of resolving that tension?

  Dr Koser: First to reiterate your point, yes, there are very serious concerns not just in the UK but elsewhere that what I believe to be quite legitimate efforts to try to stem or stop or reduce irregular migration can also have an impact on asylum and refugees, and the reason of course is that an increasing proportion of asylum seekers, as far as we are aware, are moving in an irregular fashion. It is increasingly difficult practically for asylum seekers to arrive in countries like the UK (but not just the UK) in a legal, regular fashion. You cannot any more go and get a visa in Afghanistan and come to the UK so you have to use a smuggler to do it, very simply. So irregular migration is bringing in not just irregular economic migrants looking for work, as Professors Harris has indicated, but also people genuinely fleeing for their lives who are entitled to some sort of international protection. So it seems to me that you have the problem of at least three sorts of people moving in one single channel. You have economic migrants, people who want to work and, as Professor Harris has said, will continue to want to work, and we cannot do much about that. You have people pretending to be asylum seekers but are not in fact asylum seekers. That is another confusion in the whole system. You have genuine refugees who are indeed fleeing persecution and life-threatening situations and who deserve international protection. The challenge for policy is somehow to try to distinguish between all three of those. It is a challenge that I do not think is being met at the moment. All this report says and I think all that advocates would say is that by all means, yes, do take whatever policies you think are appropriate to try to reduce irregular migration but please make sure that the rights of asylum seekers and refugees are fully respected and not jeopardised in that process. I recognise it is very difficult to do in practical terms.

  Professor Harris: A brief addition to that. There is another category which is people who are real asylum seekers who become irregular migrants. There is evidence, for example, that Turkish Kurds coming into the country slip into the irregular labour market of Stoke Newington and that area but they have genuine grounds for fleeing political persecution in Turkey, so you have got this other category. The important thing is that these categories do not mean a lot and people move between them. We speak of irregular migration but what do we mean: a Brazilian girl who comes on a tourist visa to London, gets pregnant, is obliged to stay and is obliged to work. She is only trying to earn enough to get on to Paris before she goes back to Brazil. It is the categories which are so misleading. The fundamental problem is that the British economy depends on being open. There are 40 million people entering and leaving each year and it is expected that is going to rise to 80 million and well beyond that.[1] That means you cannot control the categories. People enter as students and work, they enter as tourists and work, et cetera, et cetera, so really the important thing is how do we identify the real problem? Is the real problem people flowing in and out or is it people who settle? I believe, and the Commission believes, that the British public is concerned with settlement not with movement, and therefore we must facilitate movement (both movement for work and other purposes) but the control of settlement is what is the central political problem and there the criteria can be quite different from entry and departure.

  Q111  Gwyn Prosser: But would you not agree that the definitions and categories are enormously important for any state which wants to control immigration and measure the movement?

  Professor Harris: I agree. All I am saying is that we have to treat them recognising that people are not trapped in the categories and they are going to transfer between the categories. There are a large number of people who are irregular migrants who once arrested they claim asylum because that is a legal exit from having been arrested and they no doubt had grounds for being asylum seekers, you understand, so there are no very clear-cut criteria here in which the Government can tread confidently that it recognises the truth, particularly in the case of asylum seekers. In the chaos of persecution and civil war and so on, people get out and they will say almost anything when they get to the border to avoid having to go back.

  Dr Koser: The very simple answer to your question is that according to the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, of which the UK is a signatory, the manner in which an asylum seeker arrives cannot be held against him or her in terms of considering his or her application. I think the UK respects that particular provision of the Convention. That is the only way to take this forward. If someone arrives in an irregular fashion in the back of a truck and says, "I am here to claim asylum", then they have to be dealt with as an asylum seeker by UNHCR offices and dealt with in that manner. There is no real way out of that. Asylum is a way for people to enter the country like that.

  Q112  Chairman: Equally, just to pursue this point, the Government with Parliament's support not long ago changed the rules to prevent people making an asylum application for four or five years after they first came into the country once they had been arrested because that was, frankly, a blatant loophole. Whilst there may have been some of those people who actually all that time had an asylum case without realising it, do you think that Parliament was wrong to try and change the rules in that way because it was something that was clearly capable of exploitation?

  Professor Harris: You are inviting me into a political minefield.

  Q113  Chairman: Just a moment ago you said those people no doubt had a well-founded case to asylum and I think some of us as constituency MPs who have dealt with those cases would question your statement.

  Professor Harris: I was not covering all people.

  Q114  Chairman: Because many, frankly, do not.

  Professor Harris: All the people who claim refugee status or who claim to be seeking asylum no doubt are not doing so. All I was saying is that we cannot rest confident in the security of those concepts. That is the point.

  Dr Koser: The specific answer to your question is the key issue is the time that is given to people to apply for asylum. I have interviewed many asylum seekers and I have asked them, "What did you know about asylum when you got here? and they have said, "Look, I came from a mountain in Afghanistan, I was fleeing for my life, I do not even know what asylum means." If you say within two days you have got to apply then I think that is unreasonable; if it is a week or two weeks that is acceptable.

  Q115  Gwyn Prosser: Do you see regularisation as an effective long-term response to irregular migration?

  Dr Koser: Let me pick this apart a little bit if I may. I actually disagree with one thing Professor Harris said. I think the concern with irregular migration for many people is the flows rather than the "stops" if I can use that word. We are concerned about people crossing our borders and we seem to forget there are large numbers of people (we do not know how many) who currently are present in the UK and other countries in an irregular fashion. The Commission believes that on the one hand you need policies to deal with the flows to stop people arriving but on the other hand you have to accept that there are, however, many thousands of people who are here already in an irregular fashion, as Professor Harris has said, working and contributing to the economy. The Commission believes that you cannot simply turn a blind eye to those people and say, "Forget it, let's let them continue working in an irregular fashion." What it recommends is a very careful consideration, and I think that circumstances would vary by country and by population, of two possible options for those people who are currently present in an irregular fashion. One is return. I think return has not been used as strongly as it might be in the UK. Of course, there are many people who cannot be returned but return is certainly one way of dealing with these people. The other possibility is regularisation, I think logically those are the only two options we really have to deal with the irregular migration population. The grave argument against regularisation, to answer your question, is the question of whether this is a magnet. If I live in Kosovo and I know that you are going to have a regularisation next year then I am going to come in time to have it. What the Commission recommends is a one-off regularisation; not a rolling programme, a one-off which says to all irregular migrants in the UK today we will regularise you full stop, and then we do not do that again. That may be an answer. I think personally that the magnet argument is a strong reason not to adopt the idea of a rolling programme where we do it every three years.

  Q116  Gwyn Prosser: Is there not a worry there because every time a government does say "we are having a one-off amnesty" everyone knows it will not be a one-off?

  Professor Harris: As in Spain and the United States where each amnesty is only a prelude for another one three years later. This is why I think we should move towards what the Commission proposed in terms of temporary visas, three year or four year work permits issued in sufficient numbers to mop up the irregular migration but simultaneously allows people into the country to apply for that work permit. That seems to me to be different to a one-off amnesty that leads to a rush. It is that you may if you are already working here apply to be considered for the issue of a work permit to validate your position. The problem is the cost of all that. At the moment the Government tries to register all the people from Eastern Europe and it costs £50 (or two days' tax free pay). Which worker from Eastern Europe is going to bother to apply for regularisation when it costs £50? So whatever scheme is introduced it has not got to constitute a major disincentive to irregular workers to apply for it.

  Q117  Gwyn Prosser: Professor Harris, do you still hold to your statement that irregular migration is a fundamental, albeit unacknowledged, part of Managed Migration?

  Professor Harris: Yes, I think it is the only thing that makes migration work. It is what meets basic labour demand in the UK for unskilled labour because the Government does not meet it, so it makes possible the rest.

  Q118  Steve McCabe: Professor Harris, you say in your report that there should be a clear separation between migration for work and those who are admitted for settlement. That is one of the distinctions. Could you just briefly tell us why you think it is important that we make that clear separation?

  Professor Harris: Because as the British economy becomes more and more globalised I believe the numbers of people passing through the UK, whether for a day, a year or five years, is going to increase enormously. If the British economy is to thrive and household welfare is to be secured, we have to have a system which allows people to circulate through the country whilst reassuring the electorate that this does not change the composition of the population. So there the issue is who is admitted for long-term permanent settlement. That, it seems to me, is the basis of the distinction. We are going to have many millions more people flowing through the country for short periods and many of them working for short periods or long periods, but we have to separate that out from changing the social composition of the population, which seems to me is what worries electorates, that the country is being transformed behind their backs without their decision. In the case of Switzerland, for example, which in the 1950s and 1960s relied very heavily on temporary migration, it was still extremely difficult to make the transition from being a temporary worker to being a Swiss national. Instead of concentrating on people crossing borders we have to concentrate on people making the transition from work to settlement. We frame a scheme in the report of how that might work, that is to say the period of time during which you work before you can be considered for settlement. That can be changed, that is an optional thing.

  Q119  Steve McCabe: Thank you. I think you used the example of the US/Mexico border to show the problem of very restrictive controls and you say the more restrictive the controls the higher the cost the migrant pays and consequently they stay in the country longer. Essentially you conclude from that that the tougher or more restrictive the controls the longer the person will remain in the country they have come to. Given that, are there any kind of immigration controls at all that you think would help the circulation of migratory labour or are you arguing for no controls?

  Professor Harris: No, no, no, migration controls are there to reassure the electorate that the system is under control. At the moment it is not under control because labour demand is being met irregularly. The question is to frame such a system that will meet the labour demand through the regular system. I think that is feasible and should be explored with powerful incentives to return, to repeat Dr Koser's point. That is to say, if workers come here, first of all we propose that they come here to earn and to learn. This becomes a way of enhancing the skills of workers who come to Britain both in language and in other trade skills, et cetera, et cetera.

1   Note by Witness: We have since checked the figures and there are 80 million entering and leaving each year and it is expected to rise further. Back

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