Despite the UK government pledge to reduce net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’, latest ONS figures show that net migration rose by 21% last year. While ministers struggle to come up with explanations and justifications, I would like to take this opportunity to answer a more general question: why it is wrong for the UK government to base its immigration policy on the indicator of ‘net migration’.

By definition, net migration is the difference between in-migration and out-migration. The reasons for moving in and out of a country are far too complex for any immigration policy to grasp if not control for a number of reasons which I briefly explain below.

First of all, both in- and out- migrants are not necessarly foreigners as most seem to believe in the government and outside.

Second, both flows include UK citizens; EU citizens and non-EU citizens.

Third, of the three in-migration flows, the UK government can currently only exercise (almost) full control over non-EU citizens migrating to the UK for non-asylum reasons (although, of course, they have attempted in many ways to make access to asylum difficult too). 

Forth, the government has little to no control of out-migration flows. UK citizen emigration is left to the free market and we all know what the current economic and financial situation is; as for the EU citizens leaving the UK, we hear occasionally of Polish plumbers moving back and forth from Poland, again what instruments has the government to regulate this mobility and that of hundreds of thousands of other EU citizens (e.g. French, Italians, Germans, etc)? And, finally, as for the non-EU out-migration, we are led to believe that deportation and destitution are viable tools for inducing ‘unwanted’ immigrants to leave the country. In reality this may work well as a tool of symbolic politics but is not very effective if we look at the actual figures.

So, to conclude, the life of the government would be much easier if it just drops the net migration target altogether, accepting that it was a mistake to pick it in the first instance and approach immigration and emigration in a more sensible and pragmatic way.