Open Britain

Philippe Legrain
16 June 2008

As moral panic about immigration sweeps Britain, ‘bogus asylum-seekers' are the focus of particular hatred. They appear to validate the prejudice that dastardly foreigners cannot be trusted to ‘play by the rules' and want to abuse our generous hospitality. In order to protect Britain from these shady low-lifes - doubtless would-be benefit cheats, criminals or even terrorists - the government surely has no option but to compromise its well-meaning instincts and crack down ever harder on all asylum applicants. If that entails people fleeing persecution suffering further mistreatment upon arrival in Britain, so be it: blame the bogus claimants, not the government.


Yet that argument is utter humbug. For a start, Britain is hardly welcoming to people fleeing persecution. The government pays lip service to its legal obligation to admit refugees, but makes it ever harder for them to do so in practice. Even Iraqis, whose suffering is clear and to whom Britain has a particular moral duty, are made to jump through hoops.

The notion that it is reasonable to inflict suffering on a group of people because some may be guilty of an offence is also morally indefensible. It is akin to the argument that because some black people may be criminals, the police are justified in treating all of them as if they were.

In any case, one cannot neatly distinguish refugees from ‘economic migrants', any more than the Victorians could separate the ‘deserving' and ‘undeserving' poor. An Iraqi teacher who applies for asylum in Britain may do so partly because she fears being raped or blown up, but also because she would rather live in a society where women are treated better and economic opportunities are greater - rather than, say, Syria. Outrageous? Hardly.

Above all, since governments conspire to deny people the right to cross borders freely, is pretending to be a refugee really so terrible?

The British government's arbitrary rules seek to deny entry to prospective migrants from outside the EU whom it does not accept as legitimate refugees and who do not have family in the UK or "high" skills, as determined by its pseudo-scientific new points system that purports to select only the "right" people who will contribute to the economy and society.

Even well-meaning refugee organisations implicitly accept that it is legitimate for people fleeing persecution to try to come to Britain but not for others seeking a better life. But why shouldn't people also be allowed to cross national borders in search of a better job, to be with the ones they love, to live in a society where women enjoy greater equality and where one can be openly gay, to learn English, to get a taste of British life and culture, or simply to experience somewhere different?

Freedom of movement

Freedom of movement is a fundamental human right. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which marks its 60th anniversary this year, states that: "Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own" - and what is the right to leave a country if one cannot enter another?

Those of us lucky enough to have been born in a rich country such as Britain take for granted that we can move around the world more or less as we please. We go on holiday in Thailand and safari in Africa; many of us increasingly spend longer periods abroad to study, work and retire; some of us end up settling elsewhere too. Why, then, do we seek to deny this right to others?

This article forms part of MigrantVoice on refuge, a special project celebrating UK Refugee Week 2008.Have your say on our multiauthored blog, bringing unheard voices to the forefront of the debate.

Also in openDemocracy:
Irshad Manji, "For a future bigger than our past"

Mamphela Ramphele, "The rainbow nation's lesson",

Hsiao-Hung Pai, "Chinese migrant workers: lives in shadow",

Brian K Murphy, "Open borders, global future"

Our efforts to keep poor people out while the rich and the educated circulate increasingly freely are a form of global apartheid. They are not only morally wrong; they are economically stupid and politically short-sighted.

By forcing desperate people to take desperate measures - pretend to be a refugee, enter the UK covertly, or overstay a visitor's visa and live in the shadows without legal protection - Britain's immigration controls cause more problems than they purport to solve. A humanitarian crisis, with thousands dying each year trying to reach Europe and thousands more detained; the soaring financial burden of border controls and bureaucracy; a criminalised people-smuggling industry; an ever-expanding shadow economy, where illegal migrants are vulnerable to exploitation, labour laws are broken and taxes go unpaid; an undermining of faith in government's ability to regulate migration; a corrosion of attitudes towards immigrants, who are perceived as law-breakers rather than hard-working and enterprising people; a perverse incentive for foreigners who would rather come temporarily to settle permanently, because of the ordeal they would face if they left and wanted to return; and the mistreatment of refugees in an attempt to deter people who want to come and work from applying for asylum.

These problems are generally blamed on immigrants, but they are actually due to our immigration controls, which are not just cruel, but ineffective, counterproductive. Far from protecting society, they undermine law and order, just as Prohibition did more damage to America than drinking ever has.

A New Lease of Life

Immigration controls also do great damage to the British economy - and opening our borders would bring huge economic benefits. After all, the United States didn't do too badly when millions of poor European migrants arrived in the late 19th and early 20th century. And just as it is generally accepted that it is beneficial for people to move from Liverpool to London if their labour is in demand; the same surely applies to those moving from Warsaw, Manila or Harare.

Britain's recent experience certainly suggests so. Opening our doors to the Poles and other workers from the new EU accession states has given the economy a new lease of life. The Poles building affordable homes for key workers, Lithuanians cleaning hospitals and Czechs caring for the elderly are delivering higher living standards and better public services for all. Many are doing jobs that British people no longer want: as the head of any retirement home can attest, suitable British candidates do not apply. And because the new immigrants are more willing to move to where the jobs are, and to change jobs as conditions change, they have made the economy more dynamic, enabling it to grow faster for longer without running into inflationary bottlenecks.

Migration is particularly beneficial because immigrants are a self-selected minority who tend to be young, hard-working and enterprising. People who cross the world to try to build a new life for themselves are unlikely to be lazy: it takes guts to make such a big leap in the dark and hard work to make it pay off.

Most importantly, migrants' different perspectives and experiences help spark the new ideas and businesses on which our future prosperity depends. The exceptional individuals who come up with brilliant new ideas often happen to be immigrants. Instead of following the conventional wisdom, they tend to see things differently, and as outsiders they are more determined to succeed. Twenty-one of Britain's Nobel-prize winners arrived in the country as refugees.

Migrants' collective diversity is also vital. If there are ten people sitting around a table trying to come up with a solution to a problem and they all think alike, those ten heads are no better than one. But if they all think differently, then by bouncing ideas off each other they can solve problems better and faster, as a growing volume of research shows. See, for instance, Scott Page's "The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies".

Some 70 of America's 300 Nobel laureates since 1901 were immigrants. Nearly half of US venture-capital-funded start-ups were co-founded by immigrants. Just look at Silicon Valley: Google, Yahoo! and eBay were all co-founded by immigrants who arrived not as graduates selected by some ingenious points system, but as children. And the value of diversity does not apply only in high-tech: an ever-increasing share of our prosperity comes from solving problems - such as developing new medicines, computer games and environmentally friendly technologies, designing innovative products and policies, providing original management advice. Diversity is also a magnet for talent. Go-getting people are drawn to cities like London because they are exciting and cosmopolitan.

As John Stuart Mill rightly stated: "It is hardly possible to overrate the value, for the improvement of human beings, of things which bring them into contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar... there is no nation which does not need to borrow from others."

Newcomers' contribution is potentially vast - yet inherently unpredictable. Nobody could have guessed, when he arrived in the United States aged 6 as a refugee from the Soviet Union, that Sergey Brin would go on to co-found Google. How many potential Brins does Britain turn away or scare off - and at what cost?

Yet Britain's new points system is based on the fallacy that the government can - and should - pick winners. It would have denied entry to most of the people on the Windrush, to Olympic hero Kelly Holmes's father, and to (Lord) Waheed Ali's parents. Had they been born abroad, a young John Prescott, who left school at 15, and a young Richard Branson, who left at 16, would have been denied entry. University dropout Bill Gates would also have been turned away. And a Kenyan goat-herd called Barack Obama Sr? Forget it: nothing great will ever come out of him. Surely a Labour government that believes in opportunity for all should realise that you can't - and shouldn't - determine people's life chances based on their background.

Fusion Food

What's more, being confronted with a variety of people, points of view, ways of thinking and lifestyles helps us to understand the world and ourselves better - and hopefully helps us to progress as individuals and a society. And in cities such as London, people who have grown up in a multicultural society find it not only normal but desirable to live with people of different backgrounds, with diversity not something to be tolerated but something to be cherished. The social benefits of diversity are huge, as anyone with a colleague, friend, relative or partner of foreign descent knows.

Immigration broadens the diversity of cultural experiences available in Britain: whether it is eating curry or Vietnamese food, listening to reggae or samba music, or practising tai-chi and Buddhist meditation. This mingling of cultures leads to distinctive innovations: British-Indian food such as chicken tikka masala as well as Asian fusion food; hip hop and R&B; new holistic therapies that blend Eastern and Western influences; writers of mixed heritage such as Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith.

Of course, diversity can also cause friction. Reaping its full economic and cultural benefits requires communication and an open mind - and society needs common institutions and laws underpinned, however imperfectly, by liberal values: vigorous anti-discrimination laws, social mobility, and tolerance of differences within the framework of the law that applies equally to all - all of which are desirable in any case.

Greater openness would not just be good for Britain, it would also help the poor. Migrants from poor countries can earn wages many times higher in rich ones, and the money they send home - some $300 billion a year officially, perhaps the same again informally - dwarfs the $100 billion that Western governments give in aid. These remittances are not wasted on weapons or siphoned off into Swiss bank accounts; they go straight into the pockets of local people. They pay for food, clean water and medicines. They slash poverty, enable children to stay in school, fund small businesses, and they benefit the local economy more broadly. And by keeping children in school, paying for them to see a doctor and funding new businesses, remittances can also boost economic growth. What's more, when migrants return home, they bring with them new skills, new ideas and the money to start new businesses. Africa's first internet cafés were started by migrants returning from Europe. If you believe the world is unfair and we should do more to help the poor, you should be campaigning to let them work here.

As John Kenneth Galbraith said "Migration is the oldest action against poverty. It selects those who most want help. It is good for the country to which they go; it helps break the equilibrium of poverty in the country from which they come. What is the perversity in the human soul that causes people to resist so obvious a good?"

Ultimately, the debate about immigration is about whether we want to live in a fairer and freer world - and a more open, dynamic and progressive society.

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