Saturday, February 21, 2009

Immigration rights and wrongs

I should write about conferences which I'm not planning to go to more often, judging by the range and quality of comments I got last time I did so.

I promised Paul Kingsnorth a separate response about why his arguments about immigration and overpopulation (he agrees with Phil Woolas) were terrible nonsense, but happily Matt Sellwood has done an excellent job on this before I got round to writing anything. So I'm just going to pick up on a few points.

To start with, Paul writes that, "On immigration itself, whatever your view on the matter it is hard to deny that the way it has been handled over the last decade has been deeply undemocratic...For a decade they [Labour] have engineered a situation in which public discussions about immigration are taboo, by hinting darkly at the motivations of anyone who tries to hold them."

I remember the past decade. Similar policies to the ones which Paul wants to see adopted on immigration were put forward by the Conservative Party in 1997, 2001 and 2005, and decisively rejected each time. Barely a day went past when the newspapers didn't have one or more stories about immigration. Almost yearly, the government passed immigration bills through Parliament. There's been plenty, almost endless, debate about immigration ever since Labour came to power.

Paul is specifically worried about overpopulation. He writes that "The UK's population is currently almost 61 million. But it's predicted to rise to a staggering 77 million by 2051 if current levels of immigration continue." But 'current levels of immigration' are very different now, compared even to 2008 or 2007. Scare stories about overpopulation based on assumptions that levels of immigration will continue to remain at the same levels for the next 40 years is a MigrationWatch or Taxpayer's Alliance kind of argument. Even Paul goes on to write that "now that many Eastern Europeans are returning home, where their economies may end up doing better than ours". He hasn't actually suggested, though, what he thinks the population limit should be.

And so to his solution, which is that "immigration and emigration should be pretty much balanced. This means a big cut in immigration from the present numbers", and that Phil Woolas and Frank Field are on to something when they propose a population limit.

I'm not sure that Paul comprehends what the actual consequences would be if the government were to follow his policy advice. The current immigration system is cruel, vicious, discriminatory and pointlessly vindictive. A 'one in, one out' policy would be massively more so, requiring a vast increase in the amount of money that we spend trying to stop people coming to Britain, on surveillance and repression and on bureaucracy.

Phil Woolas, Frank Field or Michael Howard are, understandably, all for this, but it is a pretty weird argument from someone who is speaking at a conference next week about the erosion of civil liberties. As Matt says, it is pretty sad when the policy solutions which Paul is proposing draw more on a politics of repression and lockdown than on a politics of global redistribution of wealth and low-carbon living. Policy proposals have consequences, and the consequences of this policy would be rancid.


At 8:46 pm , Blogger Paul said...

This is all nice easy stuff, Don, but there's no meat on the bones.

My position's pretty clear: stabilising UK population at current levels by balacing inward migration and outward migration. From this point, in the long term, we will need to reduce population in any case because - a massive issue you conveniently skirt around - without fossil fuel inputs we cannot sustain current numbers. There is a crucial issue of ecological carrying capacity here which cannot be ignored, however inconvenient it may seem for anyone's politics.

What's your position on immigration? Like Matt, you conveniently avoid actually stating it.

Are you for open borders? If so - even leaving aside rather enormous questions like how a welfare state could survive this - how do you propose to provide the extra food, housing, energy, roads, hospitals etc etc which all the new people will be needing?

If not, you must have some kind of limit in mind. What is it?

This is a subject which lends itself easily to heated responses and glib assertions, but we need to be honest enough to move beyond them.

At 12:07 am , Anonymous stephen said...

Well Paul if you really think that we need to control population in order to curb environmental damage, why all the pussyfooting around? Why aren't you advocating curbs on the numbers of children in families and forced sterilisation? Not much point in controlling immigration if we are all breeding away, is there? Of course, controlling UK immigration isn't going to make much of a difference to global environmental damage.

As it happens, I do believe it open borders. I believe in liberty - unfortunately I could not attend the convention - and the liberty to move your body where you will is the most fundamental liberty and the one from which all others derive. I really don't see why you think that open borders would see us swamped with new people. That's just a bit arrogant, isn't it. This country just isn't that great.

BTW, did you know that the government is trying to sell ID Cards as the solution to global warming. Apparently the National Identity Register will be used to tally our carbon credits. Changed your mind about those as well?

At 1:09 pm , Blogger donpaskini said...

My policy on immigration isn't open borders. Short term it involves keeping something like the current set up minus some of the more noxious laws of the past few years, and making the system more humane and less repressive. For example, e.g. making the system work more efficiently so that claims are processed quickly; allowing asylum-seekers to work while their claims are being assessed; greater employment rights and more enforcement action to make it less profitable and viable for companies to hire undocumented workers and pay them poverty wages etc etc.

In the longer term, as Matt said, there is a need for co-operation across borders around redistribution of wealth alongside transition to low carbon living - it is completely absurd to think that these issues can be dealt with in isolation in Fortress Britannia.

In any case, all this stuff about 'ecological carrying capacity' begs a rather important question - how many people can live in Britain in a low-carbon economy?

After all, if the number is, say, 40 million or fewer, then your 'one in, one out' policy is totally inadequate, whereas if it is, say, 80 million or higher, then there's no need. The only way that, on your own terms, your argument makes sense would be if there were some pretty compelling research which suggests that we are currently at the maximum population for the carrying capacity of the British Isles in a low carbon economy.

But I'm guessing that if there were actually any such research, you might have mentioned it by now. Arguing for radical policy shifts based on sketchy or non-existent scientific evidence is not a very good strategy.

At 8:47 pm , Blogger Paul said...

Stephen -

People who reduce population arguments to lines about 'forced sterilisation' are usually not worth debating with. Suffice it to say that actually I am in favour of (non-coercive) policies to reduce global, and national, population. I don't think anyone in the UK should have more than two kids, for example. Though I suspect that it is a bit too late for that now. I don't think you really have much of a clue about the ecological issues in play worldwide right now, as these complacent posts show.

As for whether this country is 'great' or not - we had two thirds of a million people arriving here last year, so I'm guessing there's something about it. Oh, and on 'changing my mind' - which I haven't done on any of these issues - perhaps you'd care to change your mind on your support for the neoliberal 'flexible labour market', which is what causes mass immigration in the first place?

Don - nobody said anything about Fortress Britain, or dealing with anything in isolation. Your suggestions about long-term solutions, and Matt's, are eminently reasonable. Immigration is a very emotive subject, but immigration was actually not what I began talking about; it was population - an issue which, as Stephen amply demonstrates, is possibly even more emotive, and certainly less well understood.

You're quite correct to ask the question about numbers. I suggest you look at work that's been done on the ecological footprinting of the UK. We are currently unable to feed ourselves, we produce so much landfill waste that we don't know where to put it (hence incinerators, coming your way soon), a water shortage is looming, and of course we have an energy crisis in the offing, no matter how many turbines we erect. The Sustainable Development Commission has done some good stuff on this, as has NEF and others. I can probably ferret out some links if you genuinely want them.

Personally, I'd like to see a committee of ecological economists and others set to work on an unbiased study of how a genuinely sustainable, zero-carbon Britain would work - and what the optimum population should be. It would need to assume self-sufficiency in food, energy and water, at the very least. I'd then like to see us work towards it. Actually I'd like to see this in every country on Earth. A kind of contraction-and-convergence model in which rich countries get poorer and poor countries richer, eventually meeting at a sustainable point, all within an overall 'ecological budget' which can never be busted because it's based on planetary limits, would work excellently. In theory.

In reality, I doubt we have the time, and I doubt also whether people would be prepared to accept this - or even get it, stuck as most people remain in twentieth century political assumptions and the economics of 'more'. But anyone concerned about justice should make an effort to address these hard issues, because if we don't get them right very soon there'll be no justice or anything else much either.

At 10:30 pm , Anonymous stephen said...

Suffice it to say that actually I am in favour of (non-coercive) policies to reduce global, and national, population

And what if the 'non coercive' policies fail to be effective?

I don't think you really have much of a clue about the ecological issues in play worldwide right now, as these complacent posts show

Nothing complacent about my posts. I am simply trying to understand what kind of 'liberty' you actually support. As for my having a clue or not is not really the point. It is you who is asserting a connection between immigration and ecological damage. Your supercilliousness is not a substitute for argument.

As for whether this country is 'great' or not - we had two thirds of a million people arriving here last year, so I'm guessing there's something about it

Yes a booming economy which is now longer booming. Let's see what the figures are for the recession years.

Perhaps you'd care to change your mind on your support for the neoliberal 'flexible labour market'

There is no need for me to change my mind on that for I have never supported it. I support strong employment rights and the minimum wage. I support the free movement of people for their own sake not for the convenience of employers.

which is what causes mass immigration in the first place?

Immigration has been happening for hundreds of years and it has happened for many different reasons.

At 10:21 am , Blogger Paul said...

Stephen -

Immigration has always happened. But not on this scale. That's the point. The population of the UK has been steady-ish for a few decades. It is now increasing, as a direct result of inward migration, which is why I am addressing the issue in the first place.

Population an ecological damage are intimately connected, and I'd suggest you look into some of the reports etc that I suggested to Don. It's clear that nationally and globally we need to limit population.

Do you think otherwise? If so, how do you propose that we tackle the over-exploitation of the natural world?

If you don't have an answer to that it's hard to see why this debate should continue. My whole contention in the first place was that greens should to honest about this issue and not just skirt round it with homilies, warm words and sneers about sterilisation.

At 11:07 am , Anonymous tim f said...

Immigration is a red herring, as is population in Western countries. It's the pattern of consumption and unsustainable living that's the wider problem ecologically speaking. If there is no immigration but developing nations continue to develop models of food production, energy production & use, for dealing with waste etc like ours then we're screwed anyway. Equally if we have more immigration but change the way we consume then it won't be a problem ecologically.

Population control is thus a crude and ineffective tool to deal with so-called "ecological carrying capacity" (a horrendous term).

I agree with everything Stephen has said in these comments. I'd add that the idea that immigration is happening on a scale totally disproportionate to before is wrong. If you take numbers of recent migrants as a proportion of the overall population then 300 years ago migration was taking place on a much bigger scale. Of course, people then predicted society would collapse and the country just couldn't cope with level of population growth they experienced.

At 12:15 pm , Blogger Paul said...

Tim F - that's the standard line, as if it were an 'either/or' issue. It's not. We are going to have to consume a hell of a lot less, globally. But that would be made a lot easier if there were fewer of us. There is a limit to what we can extract from the natural world, and if there are fewer of us, there is more to go round. Simple maths, really.

As I've said before, the UK is currently unable to feed, water and house its current population levels with its own resources, making its ecological footprint untenable. Powering down is going to be hard enough as it is without wantonly increasing the number of mouths to feed.

I'm not convinced by your line about immigration 300 years ago. Anything to base it on? Even if you're right, of course, 300 years ago we weren't living in a globalised industrial economy which was changing the planets' climate, and we were probably also self-sufficient in basic needs.

At 12:41 am , Anonymous Boris Antonov said...

Agree with Tim F - remember that carrying capacity isn't an attractive term but it is the ecological term, so there is a reason for using it.

One thing I don't know about but would be interested in is the relative levels of permanent (i.e., no intention of going back) immigration and emigration to and from the UK. I reckon we lose tens if not hundreds of thousands of people to Spain, Portugal, Australia etc. each year none of whom have any intention of coming back, and that many of the people we rightly welcome to Britain go back home after a few years (Poles being the example everyone quotes, but not the only example). I suspect a lot of people (not, and I stress this, commenters here, but in many national media outlets) who claim to be concerned about the impact of immigration on population, and see immigration as a major concern in terms of its impact on population, are actually concerned not so much about individuals at passport control (where the numbers as I understand don't entirely support their argument - or could only do so if they were also advocating withdrawal from the European Union), as about the relative reproductive rates of recent migrants as against the settled population.

Equally, though there are and can be legitimate concerns about population levels in some Western countries with (for example) limited and irregular fresh water supplies (c.f. Flannery - "Beautiful Lies"), Britain is quite simply not one of those countries.


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