For too long we have allowed xenophobes to set the terms of the immigration debate. We do need controls over who comes, but better onesby Paul Collier / September 18, 2013 / Leave a comment
The queue for visas outside the British Embassy in Sofia, 2006, before Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007. (© Rex/Ray Tang)
British immigration policy clearly needs overhauling. Desperate not to give succour to xenophobes and racists, social scientists have strained every muscle to show that immigration is good for everyone. Inadvertently, this has allowed the terms of the immigration debate to be set by the xenophobes, and for the question to be asked: “Is immigration good or bad?” This is the wrong question. We should be asking not whether immigration is good or bad, but how much immigration is best. And while some immigration is better than none, there are solid reasons for thinking that beyond a certain rate it can be excessive.
Effective controls on immigration, therefore, are neither an anachronistic vestige of nationalism and racism, nor merely the obsession of paranoid xenophobes: they are going to become increasingly necessary in all the societies in which diasporas have accumulated. In the absence of effective policies, immigration tends to accelerate. The reason it does so is straightforward but is little understood and has only recently been decisively established by research. The single most powerful influence on the rate of immigration is the size of diasporas (meaning those immigrants and their descendants who have chosen to retain strong links with their country of origin). They are crucial for the rate of immigration, especially from countries which are poor and distant, because migrating is expensive. Most citizens of poor countries simply cannot afford the costs and risks. This is why immigrants tend to be from middle-income groups rather than the poorest. Having a relative in the country of destination dramatically lowers the costs and risks. As immigration fuels the diaspora, and the enlarged diaspora fuels immigration, it accelerates.
If migration accelerates it is liable to rise beyond the range at which the benefits of further migration exceed their costs. Britain, like other high-income societies, has only had six decades of immigration and so diasporas have grown gradually from negligible beginnings. For much of this time they were small enough to keep entry rates modest. This phase is over.
The process of immigration fuelling diasporas and diasporas fuelling immigration can either spiral explosively until the country of origin has been depopulated, such has occurred in Northern Cyprus, or else it will eventually…