Mixing Apples and Pears in the Immigration Debate

The great immigration debate is becoming increasingly heated in Europe. It tends to lump all immigrants into one group, mixing apples and pears, and  making little allowance for the important differences in the type of immigrant. The differences between refuges, asylum seekers, migrants and economic migrants are sadly either misunderstood or misrepresented by the general public and the media. Furthermore, the conflation of immigration with the European Union’s (EU) “freedom of movement” principle adds to the general fuzziness of the debate. This loose approach to the differences is contributing to the growing antipathy to immigrants and to the EU itself.

Definitions

We appear to be on the threshold of a much more unrestrained debate on immigration. If so, we may as well be clear about the definitions of the main types of immigration involved, prior to looking at the perception of the level of immigration in the next post. There are four main types of individuals that the media and the politicians refer to, but which tend to be lumped together in the public discourse, despite their heterogeneity. The International Organization for Migration is the leading international organization for migration and defines the following important groups:

Asylum seeker: is a person who seeks safety from persecution or serious harm in a country other than his or her own and awaits a decision on the application for refugee status under international and national instruments. If the decision is negative, the asylum seeker must leave the country and may be expelled, as may any non-national in an irregular or unlawful situation, unless permission to stay is provided on humanitarian or other grounds.

Each country determines their own policy in relation to asylum seekers, though international conventions exist. What the media and politicians rarely acknowledge is that asylum seekers are normally a relatively small percentage of the immigration issue. Almost all Brits and Germans support a policy of supporting this group. What they do not support, is illegal immigration such as asylum seekers staying on after a negative decision. Each country determines its own asylum seeker policy and has little or nothing to do with the EU.

Refugee: is a person who, owing to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinions, is outside the country of his/her nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail him/herself of the protection of that country. Each country determines their own policy in relation to refugees, though international conventions exist. Again this is a small part of overall immigration, though the percentage does fluctuate according to crises (about 30,000 applicants in the UK but about 120,000 in Germany in 2013). In 2012 the main country of origin was Afghanistan and at the moment it is Syria. The overall number for 2014 could top 700,000, “the highest total for industrialized countries in 20 years and not seen since the 1990s conflict in former Yugoslavia” according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Nevertheless, the great majority Brits and Germans support a policy of accepting legitimate refugees.

Migrant: there is no universal definition but the term usually cover cases where the decision to migrate was taken freely by the individual for reasons of “personal convenience” and without an external compelling factor; it is applied to persons, and family members, moving to another country or region to better their material or social conditions and improve the prospect for themselves or their family.

Each country determines its policy in relation to non-EU migrants. If the numbers are perceived to be too high / low, this is a reflection of the policy priorities of each nation. The situation is different for EU nationals. One of the four “fundament freedoms” of the EU is that of freedom of movement of people (the others being capital, goods and services). These are at the core of the EU, and Brits and Germans have been among those making the extensive use of them such as buying second homes, retiring in the sun, working abroad, etc. EU nations, not least Germany, have made it clear that this freedom is non-negotiable. Britain is questioning whether this freedom can be reformed but is currently in a minority of one out of 28 EU nations. As things currently stand, Britain must decide whether to accept all four freedoms or none of them. What is clear is that it is not feasible to have an explicit immigration policy of 100,000 net migrants per year when Britain is not in a position to control its own borders in relation to non-EU immigrants and thus unable to influence the number of people entering (or leaving) the country from the EU. Moreover, it is Britain and Germany that are broadly in charge of their welfare benefit eligibility rules, not the EU.

Economic migrant: is a person leaving his or her habitual place of residence to settle outside his or her country of origin in order to improve his or her quality of life. This term is often loosely used to distinguish from asylum seekers, and is also used to refer to persons attempting to enter a country without legal permission and/or by using asylum procedures without good cause. It may equally be applied to persons leaving their country of origin for the purpose of employment.

Each country controls its own borders in relation to non-EU economic migrants. Britain and Germany have made and continue to make extensive use of this as exporters and importers of well-qualified workers. Without a work visa, which is issued by each nation-state, there can be no economic migrants from outside the EU. Britain and Germany choose to allow people to come into the county on work visas for them and their respective families because it is in their economic interest to do so.

The situation is different for EU economic migrants, since the freedom of movement applies to everything, including tourism, study, retirement and work. Inevitably, some countries will be more popular or economically dynamic than others and the economic migration trend will vary over time. It is generally understood to be a good thing that those in high unemployment regions can migrate to low unemployment regions within a country, so as to get a job. If this is so, then surely the same applies to the EU region (28 countries) as a whole.

You cannot have your freedom of movement cake and eat it at the same time: either you accept the whole package or you reject it. Britain must decide whether it wants in or not; if not, as things currently stand, the consequence is that Brexit (British exit from the EU) will occur as surely as night follows day. Either way, economic migration will continue from non-EU and EU countries because it is in the economy and society’s interest for it to do so. The flip-side of Brexit is theoretically that Britons currently living and working in other EU countries might have to return to Britain. An estimated 1.1 million Britons were living in three countries of the EU, namely Spain, France and Germany alone.

Mixing Apples and Pears

It is obviously important to distinguish these various categories, but a cursory exploration of UK and German media and politicians’ statements suggest that the distinctions do not appear to be understood, let alone respected in the popular discourse about migration.

The route of capping non-EU immigration is theoretically and practically possible; many countries do so, and it is up to the politicians to implement this if their electorates insist upon it. Having created a “target” of 100,000 for the first time in British history, the failure or otherwise to achieving it is the responsibility of the British government and theirs alone. It has nothing to do with the EU since the freedom of movement has always existed from the very beginning, something that surely must have been known to the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, who in his wisdom, created this particular target in the first place.

Presumably it was a political calculation because of the recent influence of Ukip in British EU and immigration politics. But by doing so, the British Government appears to have achieved little more than to create a large rod for its own back. Ukip has got firm hold of this particular rod and is gleefully availing itself of the opportunity. The Conservative-led government is simply reaping the political whirlwind of an ill-advised, but apparently populist policy. The recent bye-elections have gifted Ukip increasing power and influence, and represent evidence of the folly of such a policy. Attempting to steal the Ukip emperor’s clothes may reinforce the trend and further entrench public opinion, which is increasingly negative towards both immigrants and EU. As discussed in the last post, the two are increasingly portrayed as part and parcel of the same issue by politicians and the media.

Capping EU immigration is simply not feasible without leaving the EU and it is a case of political smoke and mirrors to suggest or pretend otherwise for short-term political gain. It leaves Britain increasingly diminished in the eyes of its other 27 partner nations. Britain and Britons must make-up their mind about whether the British Isles, the so-called special relationship with the USA and the old (and new?) Commonwealth represent a better alternative to the four freedoms offered by the EU28. The Germans are bound to the EU at the hip (and increasingly the other way around). It is inconceivable that such a debate would seriously take place there in the short or medium term, though there is certainly a growing debate about leaving the Euro, driven by the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

Releasing the Genie?

The UK cannot go on pretending that it can have it both ways. It is irresponsible for politicians and certain parts of the media to lump all types of immigrants together, paying little attention to the major differences between them, which also deriding immigrants in general and the EU and the European Commission in particular. Society is responding to these populist messages. Scan the comments made in response to newspaper articles, listen to live radio interviews and the views increasingly aired on TV and you will catch the general drift in respect to the twin themes of the EU and immigration. David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband (and indeed Nigel Farage, who is married to a German) seem set on allowing this trend to continue in the period leading up to the UK general election. The question is: will it be easy or indeed possible to put the genie back in the bottle thereafter? Personally, I am far from convinced the everything will be back to normal after May 2015.

Ricardo Pinto, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.anglodeutsch.eu


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  1. Pingback: Freedom of Movement of People and Immigration in Britain and Germany

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