Managing migration: a global challenge

As policymakers around the world seek to resolve the ‘trilemma’ of balancing economics, human rights and anti-immigration rhetoric, people keen to work or study abroad face increasingly high barriers to realising their plans. David Sapsted reports.

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This article is taken from the Spring 2024 issue of

Think Global People magazine

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View your copy of the Spring 2024 issue of Think Global People magazine.
Europe and the US in particular are confronting an unprecedented influx of people who are entering the country for economic reasons through illegal means and without the correct immigration paperwork. The numbers have caused such uproar, particularly among right-of-centre politicians, that new and often extreme immigration restrictions are being imposed.Illegal immigration is often conflated with legal migration and people seeking asylum, which also hit record highs in countries like the UK and Australia last year. The result is that the introduction of many of these new restrictions is affecting the ability of countries with the most developed economies to attract the overseas skills they are desperately short of at a time when their populations are ageing and birth rates declining.

A key issue globally in a bumper election year

Nowhere is immigration a bigger issue than in the US. Polls are consistently putting it as voters' primary concern, even above the economy and the cost of living. The topic stands to be central ahead of November's presidential elections.Unfortunately, the number of crossings at the Mexican border threaten to encourage candidates to adopt policies that could threaten legitimate immigration. In March, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank based in Washington DC, came out with a surprisingly stark condemnation of Donald Trump’s proposals, saying they could “cripple the existing immigration system”.The foundation's study warned that Mr Trump's policies “mark a significant divergence from traditional conservative immigration priorities [such as] promoting merit-based immigration, fostering assimilation and enhancing interior enforcement".Mr Trump's proposals include denying federal funding to states that decline to share taxpayer and driving licence information with federal authorities; blocking government financial aid to college students if their state grants access to certain immigrant groups; and suspending updates – and thereby reducing – the eligibility list for temporary visas.“[Mr Trump's plan] isn’t simply a refresh of first-term ideas, dusted off and ready to be re-implemented,” said the study. “Rather, it reflects a meticulously orchestrated, comprehensive plan to drive immigration levels to unprecedented lows and increase the federal government’s power to the states’ detriment. These proposals circumvent Congress and the courts and are specifically engineered to dismantle the foundations of our immigration system.”As the London ‘Financial Times’ (FT) pointed out recently: "Politicians promise to cut immigration, while knowing their societies could not function without it." The newspaper cited the recently published book, 'How Migration Really Works', written by Dutch academic, Hein de Haas. A sociologist who has held posts at Oxford and Amsterdam universities, Prof de Haas says governments face a trilemma as they try to simultaneously maintain economic openness while respecting foreigners’ human rights and fulfilling their own citizens’ anti-immigration preferences. “One of the three has to go,” he wrote. “The most attractive option for politicians is to suggest they will clamp down on immigration through bold acts of political showmanship that conceal the true nature of immigration policies.”

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Are stricter policies the answer?

Italy has been a prime example of such tactics. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni swept to office in 2022 on the back of a campaign centred on anti-immigration rhetoric. She has since blocked humanitarian groups from rescuing migrants crossing the Mediterranean while creating nearly half a million work permits for non-EU immigrants.The FT pointed out: "The EU collectively, which fears losing the global competition for high-productivity workers, is similarly trying to attract skilled non-EU migrants with a talent pool scheme aptly nicknamed 'Tinder for jobs'. But a wave of fervently anti-immigration candidates are high in the polls ahead of the European parliamentary elections this year."Ruchir Sharma, who chairs the New York-based philanthropic research organisation, Rockefeller International, says the big risk is that legitimate concerns over illegal immigration spill over to restrict or discourage the flow of people migrating legally."The UK recently took steps to lower immigration by more than half to 300,000.  Australia just tightened visa rules for students and low-skilled workers. Even Canada, which is raising its quota for permanent immigrants, is moving to limit the influx of temporary workers. France, imposing perhaps the toughest measures, is limiting welfare for foreigners, making it easier to remove migrants and ending automatic citizenship for children born in France to immigrant parents."Mr Sharma maintains that such policies might be good politics "in a world turning weary of outsiders,” but represent questionable economics. "By one recent count, the US would need to let in nearly 4 million migrants a year, every year, to prevent its population growth turning negative in the coming decades."And most developed economies are much farther down the road to population decline than the US. Smart politicians will need to find a balance between controlling the chaos of illegal immigration and limiting the economic fallout of anti-immigrant policies."

Impact in the UK

In the UK, the government has been preoccupied with people making illegal crossings in small boats across the Channel, its faltering plan to deport people seeking asylum to the UK to Rwanda, and official statistics published late last year showing that net immigration over the last 12 months had reached 745,000. Facing an ever-louder outcry from right-wingers, Home Secretary James Cleverly announced a range of measures aimed at reducing net migration to 300,000 a year. He increased the minimum salary needed for skilled workers to enter the UK from £26,200 to £38,700; banned care workers from bringing dependants into the country; and an extension to postgraduate students of the ban, which came into effect in January, on undergraduates bringing family members with them.The curb on students had an immediate effect on study visas, with the number issued falling by 32% in the last quarter of 2023: down to 78,700 from 116,974 in Q4 a year earlier. Simultaneously in the last quarter, the number of student visa rejections by UK authorities more than doubled to 10,530 compared to Q4 2022.Vivienne Stern, chief executive of Universities UK, is worried there could be more restrictions on the way in the current, anti-immigrant climate. “We call on all political parties in the run-up to a general election to reassure prospective international students that the UK remains open and the graduate visa is here to stay,” she said. “Any further knee-jerk reforms could have serious consequences for jobs across the country, economic growth and UK higher education institutions.”Universities are far from the only ones worried by the immigration crackdown, which the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) says will do nothing to solve the nation's labour shortages and which Neil Carberry, chief executive of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, says will stunt growth and unfairly disadvantage the private sector. One industry particularly concerned over the increase in the skilled worker earnings threshold is the tech industry. Research by Integro Accounting, an accountancy provider to IT contractors, said there was an increase in overseas technology professionals from 39,899 in 2021 to 52,686 in 2022.Now, Christian Hickmott, managing director at Integro Accounting, fears the anti-immigration measures could seriously harm overseas recruitment: “The UK’s chronic under-production of tech talent is making us increasingly reliant on foreign IT professionals to plug skills gaps. The loss of EU-based talent due to Brexit, together with the pandemic and the off-payroll working rules accelerating the retirement of many IT professionals, has exacerbated the skills crisis in the sector.“Increasing the salary threshold from £26,200 to £38,700 for work visas will likely exclude some of the tech occupations in which there has been a sharp rise in visas issued over the past year. Many foreign nationals could now be excluded by the raised salary threshold, particularly for roles outside London.”But Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has told Parliament: “Let me be crystal clear, the levels of migration are far too high and I am determined to bring them back down to sustainable levels."However, Abdeslam Marfouk, an associate researcher at the Centre for Ethnic and Migration Studies at the University of Liège, points out: "The alarmist discourse of certain media and politicians has a strong impact on the way European citizens view immigration. It shapes and propagates an image of immigration that is far removed from reality."The general public significantly overestimates the demographic weight of the immigrant population living in their country, for example. As a result, many European citizens say that they are in favour of very restrictive immigration policies, especially with regard to certain categories of people."

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