Politicians tend to get all the blame for immigration policies not working. But politicians are often doomed to fail on migration questions because there are deep-rooted problems with the way we all debate immigration and with what we expect of immigration policy.

Following UKIP’s success in the European elections, and given the likely failure of the government to meet its net migration target by 2015, immigration is guaranteed to be a key focal point of public debate in the run-up to the general election next year. There is widespread agreement that Britain needs a ‘better’ immigration debate – but how can that be achieved?

Over the past year I have been developing an online course on international labour migration for Oxford University which deals with this question. I suggest that three key issues need to be addressed, not only by politicians, but also by the media and the public:

1) Unrealistic understanding of nation states’ capacity to regulate immigration

Policy, media and public debates frequently fail to appreciate the role and capacity of nation states to regulate the admission and rights of migrants. As such, these types of debates have been instrumental in popularising two extreme positions:

One is that nation states should be in ‘complete control’ of immigration.  This is the impression that we frequently get from looking at public opinion data and many media reports that deal with the public’s views on immigration policy.

The other is that that because of the ‘unstoppable’ forces of globalisation, national borders are increasingly ‘beyond control’ for national policy-makers. This suggests that the policy challenge is to manage the consequences of immigration rather than its scale and composition.

Both of these popular positions are clearly wrong. The migration (and other) policies of nation states play a key role in influencing international migration: restrictive immigration policies are a major reason why only a relatively small share of people who wish to migrate to other countries are able to do so, and why, despite huge inequalities across countries, international migrants constitute only three percent of the global population.

At the same time, it should be equally obvious that no country is or even can be in complete control over immigration. National policy-makers face a range of constraints in regulating the admission and rights of migrants. These include legal obligations arising from domestic laws and membership in international institutions as well as basic capacity constraints due to, among other things, the financial costs of immigration controls.

2) Refusal to acknowledge that immigration creates both winners and losers

Immigration debates are often dominated by ‘immigration hardliners’ who characterise whatever type of migration they are discussing as ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’. But in practice, the impacts of migration always involve both costs and benefits, and until governments engage in honest debate about the multifaceted impacts and inescapable trade-offs created by migration, migration debates will remain confused.

There are numerous short-term and long-term trade-offs in global labour migration. For example, in the short run, more low-skilled immigration in the UK and other high-income countries can benefit employers and consumers, but sometimes at the expense of those resident workers who are competing with new migrants in the job market. In the longer run, more low-skilled migrants may lead to more investment in the economy, raising labour demand, employment opportunities and wages for all workers.

Workers from low-income countries such as Nepal who are employed on infrastructure projects in oil-rich states such as Qatar may be appallingly exploited and abused. However, they have opportunities for income generation that they could never find in their home countries. So for workers in poor countries, employment in higher-income countries often involves a trade-off between ‘access’ and ‘rights’.

3) Failure to make clear the ethical starting points of migration policy

To debate the question ‘How should we regulate immigration?’, we obviously need to discuss policy objectives and, critically, in whose interests policies should be made.

We often hear national policy-makers say that they are restricting immigration in the best ‘national interest’ – but what does that mean? To what extent, if at all, should our immigration policies take account of the interests of migrants and their countries of origin? How do we balance competing interests of employers and workers? These are difficult moral questions with no right answer. Because they involve both inclusion and exclusion, these fundamental ethical questions make most people uncomfortable and are therefore often avoided. But this just serves to compound the problem of confused public debates and unclear policy-making on migration.

Better policies on migration require a better public debate. As Britain moves into a period of increasingly pressurised immigration debates in the run-up to the general election, we need open discussion about the limitations of the nation state, the inescapable trade-offs in migration, and – perhaps most fundamentally – the policy objectives, including the underlying ethical questions.

Martin Ruhs is Associate Professor of Political Economy at the University of Oxford, and a member of the UK’s Migration Advisory Committee (MAC).  He blogs on international labour migration at www.priceofrights.com  

Tags: EU, Europe, Globalisation, Immigration, labour demand, UKIP