Immigration is not only politically controversial, it is extremely complex and hard to measure accurately. There are big flows into and out of the UK every year - but in recent years more immigrants have been arriving than ever beforeby John Salt / May 21, 2005 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2005 issue of Prospect Magazine
As researchers in the field of international migration, we confront the confusion that surrounds the subject each day. Concepts are unclear. Statistics are often inadequate. Reductionism is rife. Migration becomes “immigration”; immigration and asylum are conflated. There is a foghorn dialogue between the “pro” and “anti” lobbies.
The answer to the question “What is migration?” is not straightforward. Migration is a sub-category of the wider concept “movement,” embracing various types and forms of human mobility from commuting to permanent emigration. We want to throw some light on the scale and characteristics of international migration as it affects the UK. We do not argue any view; we merely set out what is going on, as far as the data allow us.
Migration is the main component of population change in 26 out of 45 European states, including the UK. Economic globalisation, transnationalism and established diaspora communities have increased the circulation of people. New migrations have emerged, many of them short-term, taking advantage of opportunities to exploit niche labour markets. Shortages of skill and manpower at the top and bottom ends of the labour market have increased openness to foreigners. Unrecorded and illegal migrations continue to pose challenges, although there is no hard evidence that their scale is increasing.
Migrants themselves and a range of institutions—including government, employers, trade unions and human rights groups—have their reasons for promoting or trying to limit movement. Migration may be seen as an industry in which these various actors seek to maximise their objectives through a complex series of accommodations and compromises.
The migrations that do occur are the product of different processes and circumstances. For example, the right of a migrant to family reunion is often accepted as a basic human right and this facilitates the flow of spouses and children. Overseas student recruitment is usually left to educational institutions which are bound by no limits on numbers and wish to attract as many fee-payers as possible. In contrast, the movement of seasonal or low-skilled workers is often managed by state quotas, such as those in the agriculture and hospitality industries. Highly skilled migrants come by other routes such as corporate assignments. Different circumstances surround retirement migration, where moves are usually personal decisions, tempered by social security and pension rules.
Simultaneously, thousands of people each year return to their country of origin or migrate elsewhere. In 2003, for example, 106,000 Britons returned to live in this country while 191,000 emigrated. And it is not often commented upon that there are at least 3.5m Britons living in other OECD countries.