If you were to close your eyes at any debate on immigration, you might reasonably picture the participants standing back-to-back, shouting and gesticulating to opposite corners of the room. On such occasions, there’s typically only one point on which everyone actually agrees: that very highly skilled migrants – doctors, engineers, scientists – are welcome here in Britain.
Oddly, though, nobody ever seems follow up with the obvious question: what about the countries these migrants leave behind?
Look at the four nations from which we take most foreign doctors – India, Pakistan, South Africa and Nigeria. Is it not unfair to deprive them of their brightest medical minds? South Africa has the world’s largest population of people with AIDS – are its 5,000 doctors here really being put to best use?
Finding the evidence to prove the actual effects of immigration policy is, of course, tricky. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to note that throughout the 90s, when we employed very few foreign doctors, India, Pakistan and Nigeria were all steadily climbing up the international life expectancy tables. The following decade – the point at which we suddenly ushered in huge numbers of their physicians – all three fell back drastically (11, 10 and 10 places respectively). The same is true for the Philippines, which, after India, provides us with the largest number of migrant nurses.
It is also far from certain, contrary to the best-of-all-worlds optimists, that these doctors and nurses will ever return to their home countries to help them develop.
True, there are all sorts of other factors that affect life expectancy rates. We’ll never know quite how much these countries are held back by the ‘brain drain’. But then isn’t that the point? If we don’t know what we’re doing, shouldn’t we proceed with more caution? Is it really wise, or even moral, to continue bleeding these countries of their talent, only to throw foreign aid at them when the next crisis arises?