Given that it is the central focus of UK immigration policy, it is striking that the actual number of the net migration target and its statistical justification has remained so nebulous, says Dr Laurence Brown.
“Net migration” was a key term that dominated Home Secretary Theresa May’s recent speech at the Conservative party conference. In the speech, “net migration” was used as a marker of policy success, of the changing global forces fuelling mobility, of the dangers of unrestricted European migration, and to justify restrictions on asylum applications.
Yet the term “net migration” tells us little about the numbers of migrants arriving in Britain, as it is calculated from the difference between flows of immigration and emigration. It is an indicator of demographic growth caused by migration, rather than a direct measure of the magnitude of immigration.
At a time of multiplying visa categories and forms of immigration controls, the term “net migration” allows policymakers to aggregate together into a single category disparate forms of mobility from students, temporary migrants, refugees, those seeking family reunification, or highly skilled workers.
As a total for the number of “stayers” rather than “arrivers”, net migration can be extremely misleading when used as a proxy for immigration. One example from May’s speech is when she argues that Labour badly managed the arrival of asylum seekers into Britain, stating that: “In 2002, there were more than 84,000 applications for asylum. This alone constituted 49 per cent of net migration to Britain.”
While net migration was 153,000 in 2002, the total number of immigrants arriving in that year was 516,000, so asylum applicants represented 16% of arrivals that year. Two thirds of asylum applications were refused in 2002, which means that if their applications had been processed in that year, successful asylum seekers would have constituted around 5% of the immigrant inflow in that year. Whether we count asylum seekers in terms of their arrival, departure or their legal status provides very different visions of the outcomes of Britain’s migration policies.
Since the start of 2010, the Conservative Party has been committed to reducing net migration to “tens of thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands”. Despite failing to reach this net migration target, May repeated many of the elements from a speech in late 2012, stating: “..even if we could manage all the consequences of mass immigration, Britain does not need net migration in the hundreds of thousands every year.”
Yet the Office for Budget Responsibility has estimated that a net migration flow of 165,000 would increase national output. However these figures were based on current flows, rather than projections about what would be best for the British society or economy.
Projections of the optimum net migration for GDP growth have been central to migration policymaking in Australia where they have been used to justify an unprecedented expansion of the immigration programme. While Australia is often invoked by British policymakers and the media as an exemplar of successful restrictive border control policies, May’s speech ignored the antipodean consensus that migration is a central driver of economic development.
Indeed in Australia there is strong agreement across government that a ‘Net Overseas Migration’ (NOM) of 210,000 migrants is optimal for economic development. This commitment to population increase through immigration contrasts to the image some have in the UK of Australia as the island fortress of reality TV show Border Security, of migrant boat turn-backs, and of off-shore refugee camps.
British policymakers have directly cited antipodean experiences in developing strategies for recruiting highly skilled migrants and the community sponsorship of refugees. However it is interesting that they have made much less use of the economic and demographic modelling that has been so important in framing migration policy in Australia.
Obviously, the optimum net migration flow to fuel economic growth in Britain and its composition will be different than Australia. What is important is that in a speech dominated by precise numbers of refugees and migrants, that the net migration target set out by the Home Secretary remains so vague, undefined, and with so little supporting evidence about how the UK would experience different levels and forms of migration.
The views presented here are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of other members of the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE).