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The Conservative con on immigration

The Tories are encouraging immigration with one hand and incite against migrants with another. It's time we stopped playing their game. 

November 24 2023, 17.07pm

Both in the UK and across Europe, there is a fundamental disconnect between our politicians’ rhetoric and headline policies on immigration - and the reality of how migration actually works. 

First, two basic facts. Many migrants need the safety and opportunity we take for granted in our rich countries. This is not likely to change, and unless we make our countries as wretched as the ones they’re fleeting - dwell on this for a second -  they cannot be dissuaded from seeking it. At the same time, our rich economies desperately need migrants’ labour - most pressingly, in the case of the UK, to support our aging populations. Consequently, we  have failed in every attempt to prevent migration from happening. But it suits Europe’s  populist anti-migrant politicians to both enable immigration - as they ought - and to foster the illusion that it can be ended. They’re exploiting both migrants and their own voters by playing both sides of the coin.

Take the UK, where the most vocally anti-immigrant government in living memory is presiding over a historic high in net immigration figures. The Conservatives have trapped themselves in a rhetorical hole by demonising migrants of all kinds, all while underinvesting in essential industries and relying on the same migrants to shoulder the load. Foreign care workers and agricultural workers, who make up tens of thousands of the net migration figure, are a case in point. Promises to further reduce the rights of these workers – for example by limiting their possibility to bring family members and dependent children with them to the UK – are not credible in a context where there are massive long-term labour shortages in these industries and no plan for investment to raise wages and conditions.

It is similarly intractable to resolve the tension between a) the arbitrary, invented need to reduce numbers of student visas b) maintain the standards of our higher education sector, and c) maintain the low levels of state funding that we currently see. Even a more balanced economy where workers’ rights were better prioritised, wages in essential industries higher, and our education institutions received adequate investment, we would still face the reality of an ageing population and the need for migration to maintain the balance between workers and pensioners in the longer term. Put bluntly, we need the very same migrants we demonise so desperately.

To deflect from their unwillingness to (needlessly) reduce the number of visas issue by the UK—despite their stated desire to do so—the government does its best to move our attention on the very relatively small number of asylum seekers entering the UK without visas. But here, again, the problem is clear. Faced with a group of people who have escaped such dangers and pinned such hopes on the chance of a future in the UK, even the risk of death is no deterrent. None of the government’s policies have much impact on the numbers of migrants seeking protection on our shores, despite those policies leading to the deaths of many.

Just Thursday morning, news came that two more people—a man and a woman—drowned in the Channel attempting to make a crossing to the UK. This new pair of senseless deaths comes almost precisely on the second anniversary of the largest loss of life in the Channel that we saw in decades, when at least 27 people drowned in November 2012. In the two years since this enormous loss of life, our government has done nothing to prevent further disasters. It has demonised and mistreated the migrants who attempt to make the crossing and it has kept its plans to enforce ever harsher measures at the very top of the news agenda. But if you remove Albanians – who the government has specifically excluded from deportation to Rwanda under an agreement with the Albanian government – from the figures of people crossing the Channel in that time, you find there has only been a modest increase in people attempting the crossing, all of whom have no safe alternative options. 

The UK shares culpability for these deaths with the French government. We now know, for example, that the 27 people who drowned in 2021 called for help from both French and British coast guards; each coast guard proceeded to pass the buck to the other one until it was too late. This is merely the starkest embodiment  of a  shared race to the bottom between politicians up and down  Europe, where each hopes to appears hostile than their neighbour, so refugees will be passed from pillar to post. With the election of ultra-nationalist Meloni in Italy last year, and this week’s win for Dutch arch-Islamophobe Geert Wilders , there seems to be an unending appetite for politicians who promise to go further and ever further to end migration—regardless of the costs to all of our rights.

But just like her UK counterparts, a closer look at Meloni’s time in office shows her, too, quietly bowing to inevitable realities of migration even as she picks the weakest among the newcomers to victimise in the media glare. While calling for a perpetual military blockade of the Mediterranean from one side of her mouth, she has whispered a call to the workers Italy  so desperately needs out the other – recently introducing new pathways for low-paid migrant labourers from outside Europe to enter the country.

Similar schemes in Greece and France are under consideration, to regularise the status of migrants in order to bring their work—particularly in agriculture—into the regular market, all while loudly touting the pushbacks used against the very same migrants Wilders will no doubt pursue the same duplicity: headline harsh measures to deter asylum seekers from the Netherlands, with front-pages full of poor conditions, tougher measures, perhaps even offshore processing as well, but a back-page, quieter agenda to continue bringing in the workers that are still so needed in the Dutch economy, just as they are elsewhere.

This tactic hoodwinks voters and poisons the well of public opinion, but for populist politicians, it is a miraculous engine of perpetual motion: the necessary labour is provided, those providing it have extremely limited rights and even less public sympathy and thus can be forced into low pay and poor conditions; while their much needed presence is, perversely, used to feed the "enemy at the gates" narrative as ever harsher, ever more dramatic promises are made to rip up the entire populations’ rights and protections.     

Migrants and local populations of workers are those who depend on those rights to balance the power of government, but ultimately, all of us lose out from this erosion. We are coming into an election year. It is high time us voters—whatever party we might usually vote for—recognise the con that is being pulled. Brits and migrants need one another desperately. Our politics need to reflect that, and we should settle for nothing less than honesty and accountability from our leaders, as we pressure them to plan for sustainable, safe and rights-based migration pathways: pathways that benefit everyone involved. 


Zoe Gardner is an independent migration policy researcher and campaigner who works in the UK and across Europe to promote rights based and effective migration and refugee policies