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Immigration is a huge problem for whoever governs next


4 min read

Divisions over immigration and asylum have been a feature of British politics for decades and with a general election coming this year, they look as ingrained as ever.

This is a policy area which seems to combine the worst of both worlds: high levels of public stress and political anxiety on the one hand, tired and repetitive rhetoric on the other. Yet, overlooked amid the fractious debates, there are important ideas and approaches which could help to address concerns, bridge divides and restore public faith where it has been lost.

The aim should be to make those most concerned about immigration forget about it, not love it. Constant immigration policy shifts and ceaseless immigration rule changes risk the opposite, seeming to indicate that even the politicians responsible for controlling immigration are never really comfortable with the system they have put in place. Much can be achieved without having to resort to such hyperactivity.

More diplomacy needs to break out between the Home Office, the refugee NGO and legal sector

In the area of irregular migration, the real challenge of immigration control is not about arrivals but returns. Failure to remove people who should not be in the UK has built up a large irregular population, which fundamentally undermines the public’s faith in the system. It provides the impetus for policies such as the hostile environment and the Rwanda plan, to try to keep people away or make them go away.

Returns are really hard in practice, but even so the UK’s recent efforts have been on a long-term downward trend. Enforced returns halved between 2012 and 2019, recovered little in the pandemic, and have largely now been halted by the government’s Illegal Migration Act.

Voluntary returns have increased again in recent years, but only after a dramatic fall and are still only at two thirds of their high point in 2015. Back then, the Home Office and refugee sector worked together to encourage those in the UK without permission to leave of their own accord. The Home Office has failed to show it can handle the task on its own – to make returns work again requires both sides of the divide to rediscover their common interest in making it do so.

Indeed, the real challenge of asylum in particular can only be met through cooperative diplomacy, at the international, national and local levels. Internationally this may be hardest to achieve, but the prize is so great that it is worth embarking on serious efforts to design and agree a tough but fairer multilateral system which sees the burden and responsibility for refugees distributed more fairly between states in a way that undermines the incentives for dangerous journeys.

Nationally and locally though it is all in our own hands. At the national level, more diplomacy needs to break out between the Home Office and the refugee NGO and legal sector. Any new government should broker this, promising to invest in processing claims more efficiently, with access to legal advice up front, but with a quid-pro-quo that in return the sector accepts the outcome once it has been reasonably challenged, and actively cooperates on returns for those whose claims gave failed.

At the local level is where all the rubber of international commitments and national policies meets the road of real life. But here, where it is most crucial that things are coordinated and joined up between the complementary skills and experience of the Home Office, DLUHC and local government, is where things often fall apart. Examples such as the Homes for Ukraine Scheme show that things can work better at the local level, but this needs to become the day-to-day modus operandi, not an exceptional experience only in the direst of emergencies.

In the area of regular immigration for work, policy has been framed as a binary; local versus foreign, when in reality it is both, not either/or.

To win consent, migration should both act and be framed as supplementing not supplanting what we already have in the UK, to support our society and way of life into the future. Mechanisms such as the Immigration Skills Charge, paid by employers sponsoring overseas workers into the UK, are already in place, designed to use the benefits that business realise from immigration to fund investment in local skills and resources in the UK.

Immigration Skills Charge receipts have exploded in recent years and now stand at nearly £1.5 billion since its introduction in April 2017. Politicians making the case for the work immigration that the UK needs should advertise this fact and make sure there are tangible benefits from it.

It may look like we are all out of new ideas on immigration and asylum, but, for a party looking to govern for all, there is still a blueprint to change both the narrative and the reality.


Jonathan Thomas, senior fellow at the Social Market Foundation

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