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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 November, 2003, 12:57 GMT
Analysis: The great migration question

By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

Has the government just changed migration policy - or simply changed the tone of the debate?

For all of the 20th century, the UK's great partner across the Atlantic was settled on what it believed were clear economic and social benefits of migration to its shores.

Yet despite the USA's experience, many of Britain's political leaders have historically found themselves unable to square the migration debate in their own minds and within wider society.

Home Secretary David Blunkett
No modern, successful country can afford to adopt an anti-immigration position... It is in all our interests to harness the innovation, skills and productivity that new migrants can bring
David Blunkett

But Home Secretary David Blunkett's statement that he now sees no limit on managed migration to the UK's shores signals an enormous change in what government is publicly prepared to say.

In his speech to policy makers at London's Chatham House, and an interview with the BBC, Mr Blunkett said he wanted to "lift our sights" above the perceived national crisis in asylum and illegal immigration.

He argued forcefully that a modern economy in a globalised open world cannot shut its doors to immigration while jobs go unfilled because of major gaps in the labour market.

Quite simply, no serving senior minister has ever said there is no such thing as an upper limit to managed migration.

Indeed, since the 1960s the debate and legislation has generally been framed in how to restrict rather than allow or encourage.

If Mr Blunkett's words are matched by deeds, then British policy may soon echo that historic consensus that long existed in the United States.

What makes all this all the more interesting was that a year ago Mr Blunkett was under fire from community relations campaigners for suggesting public services were being "swamped" in some areas of the country.

So has policy changed?


Behind the scenes and in public, Mr Blunkett has been criticised by a host of interested parties in the migration debate.

Asylum demonstration
Has asylum fears poisoned the migration debate?
He has faced complaints from the asylum and refugee lobby, community integration specialists, migration economists and influential left-leaning thinkers such as Tony Blair's favourite think tank, the Institute of Public Policy Research.

The general complaint from many of these groups has been that while trying to modernise the separate asylum and migration systems, he has flirted with the language of the anti-immigration right in an effort to control the debate and prevent political ground being ceded to extremists.

They say he has talked the talk on "clamping down" - but not walked the walk in ensuring good community relations and explaining the subtleties of global movements of labour.

It's an accusation the home secretary vehemently denies. He says that he has been entirely right to forcefully tackle illegal immigration in order to protect good community relations.

Rise in racism

But against this backdrop, there is an undeniable sense that racism has worsened in areas hosting large numbers of asylum seekers or areas where local residents believe there has been an influx of illegal workers.

Far-right politics has been on the rise, although it is unclear whether this is driven by racism or disillusionment with local political leaders.

The overall question remains one of balance - if you want the benefit of migration, you have to accept the social costs
Dr Heaven Crawley, IPPR

Interestingly, hostility or uncertainty towards new migration cuts is now being recorded among all ethnic groups. In BBC News Online's major 2002 survey into race relations, a quarter of black or Asian respondents said new immigrants neither integrate nor make a positive contribution to society.

What has become clear is that debating whether or not migration is a good thing, economically or otherwise, has become tied up with the huge problems in the asylum system.

For instance, in his BBC interview, Mr Blunkett said research shows migrants contribute 2.5bn more to the exchequer than they take out in benefits.

This is not new research; it's been known to the Home Office for almost two years because they paid for it to be carried out.

But this critical statistic that adds to our understanding of the effects of migration has remained unheard because the only figure that appears to have mattered is the number claiming asylum.

Critical year ahead

Mr Blunkett says there has been no change in policy. But his speech and BBC interview clearly signal a change in tone and for a few very good reasons.

The coming year will prove a testing time for the migration debate. Within weeks we will know if the government has met its target to halve asylum applications.

Secondly, the official work permit scheme (108,000 issued last year) has been reformed to better match migrant workers with labour shortages.

The government will be watching to see if it has the desired effect of reducing clandestine (and therefore unmeasurable) economic migration.

But perhaps most importantly, Mr Blunkett's comments are also an opening shot ahead of the expansion of the European Union in May 2004.

From that date, citizens of the 10 new member states will have the right to freely seek work in the UK because the government believes it is in our economic interests to fill growing gaps in our labour market.

It is this debate on managing borders in an increasingly interconnected world economy that David Blunkett says he is now determined to win.

The question is, however, whether or not economic migration has become too tied in the public mind to the complicated world of asylum for him to do so.

Home Secretary David Blunkett
"A net increase of 200,000 people per year is permanently sustainable"

Blunkett: No limit on migration
13 Nov 03  |  Politics


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