Those who have worked to create a vicious environment for migrants over the last years may be getting what they want – new figures show Europeans leaving the UK in record numbers.
And they failed to think about the consequences of their actions.
This is not just about the Brexit vote. It would be perfectly possible to leave the European Union in a way that didn’t throw resident Europeans into turmoil, risk fragile local economies and slam our doors shut to the rest of the world. But there has been a political choice to prize arbitrary migration targets above real life – and it’s led to tens of thousands of migrants packing their bags.
Those cheerful about this will be less so when the consequences become clear. Wages will not miraculously rise. Migrants – including European migrants – fill key gaps in our economy from fruit-picking to emergency care. Their jobs can’t simply be filled by British-born workers; in some cases a supply of willing and able labour does not exist. In other skilled areas, filling the gap would take years of training and inward investment, which could take place with or without migration. But in the meantime, the wider ecosystems that depend on migrant labour are at risk, in a period of broader economic instability.
Meanwhile, international students are deserting British universities. With an ongoing funding crisis in our once world-class higher education system, there is no rationale to a climate in which international students (who pay vastly inflated tuition costs) are increasingly policed and made to feel unwelcome. It’s bad for those on the receiving end, and it’s bad for a sector which generates enormous returns.
Britain has got used to being a place where people want to come. But it’s now critical that we take steps to safeguard our own attractiveness to newcomers – because while people voted to be out of Europe, they didn’t vote to be out of work.
There are some concrete steps Britain could take to stabilise the situation.
First, we could offer a unilateral and immediate guarantee to current European residents that their right to stay will be respected. There is consensus on this across political parties, across Leavers and Remainers, and groups representing both European residents and British migrants abroad, and yet the heel-dragging continues. Enshrining this guarantee in law at the first opportunity would be a valuable reassurance to the three million residents currently left confused and afraid.
Second, we could call time on the divisive rhetoric. There are some politicians who know they can distract from debating real issues by picking on migrants, and headline writers who believe that sensational and unfounded attacks on migrants help sell papers. While most people in Britain are fair, compassionate and welcoming, the language used in newspaper columns and by government spokespeople. This goes right up to the current Prime Minister, who has accused asylum seekers of being ‘foreign criminals’, argued that migrants bring ‘next to zero’ benefits and as Home Secretary was responsible for sending out vans blazoned with ‘Go Home’.
And finally, we could move away from arbitrary migration targets and towards a national conversation that engages with facts on the ground. Good public policy requires that our economy remains competitive with decent jobs, our relationships with our neighbours remain strong, and our communities resilient and cohesive. None of this can be done without a migration policy that is responsive to issues from family migration rules to labour shortages, and we can’t have a locally responsive policy based on a target of how many people are supposed to be kicked out per year.
It’s possible for Britain’s government to deliver the referendum result in a way that doesn't irreparably damage our relationships with the world, risk local economies and destabilise lives. And after the recent migration figures, it should step up its efforts to do so.