Cui prodest? On the Home Office proposal to toughen visa requirements for Brazilians

Theresa May, Home Office

Theresa May (official picture), Home Office

Current disagreement within the Cabinet on the Home Office proposal to toughen visa requirements for Brazilian migrants and visitors highlights a deeper tension around the government’s strategy on immigration – the ruthless pursuit  of the ‘net migration’ target by the Home Office while recently successful in its own terms, produces short term gains that are hardly shared with other government departments. Diplomatic (Foreign Office) and economic (Treasury) considerations would suggest a different and less insular approach to migration that shows a better appreciation of the interconnectedness of migration to other national interests and agendas. The proposed measure would do little to reduce the population of Brazilian undocumented migrants currently in the country, but much to damage the relationship with a strategic partner of the UK.

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New migrants, (super)diversity and micropolitics of mixing

The charts below are an initial exploration of Census 2011 data on live births in England and Wales. They show respectively the number of births from foreign born mothers (Chart 1), their country of origin (Chart 2) and the oveall number of live birth by the country of origin of mother and father (Chart 3). They should be read in the context of the overall significant increase in the foreign born population over the last decade: 13 % (7.5 m) of residents of England and Wales on 27/3/2011 were born outside of the UK , of whom half of them arrived in the last 10 years. Data on the country of origin of foreign born mothers show that a significant part of them are likely to be new migrants.

Before moving on, it is worth noticing that the 7.5m foreing born residents mentioned early on are not all immigrants as many are naturalised British citizens or British citizens born abroad – some Tabloids don’t seem to appreciate the difference. In particular, according to the Census data, nearly 4.8 million residents hold a non-UK passport, of which 2.3 million are from EU member states.

chart 1 census 2011UK-born children to foreign born parents count for about 25.5% of live births in England and Wales, and the proportion has stayed about the same in the last four years [Chart 1]. In London, where the presence of non-UK born residents is significantly higher than in the rest of the country – about the 37%  of the population – the children born to mothers born outside the UK reaches 56.7%, with peak in boroughs like Newham (77 %) and Brent (75%), that is respectively 4 out of 5 and 3 out of 4 newborns are born to foreign born mothers.

Data on live births are particularly interesting because they open a (partial) window of how the population of Britain will look like in the near future in terms of ethnic and religious make-up [Chart 2], an obsession of the anti-immigration lobby. The case of places like Newham is a fascinating one for its capacity to destabilize established assumptions and understandings around whiteness, alienhood and Britishness.

chart 2 census 2011Children born in the UK to EU nationals (especially Poles and Germans) and to citizens of Middle East and other Asian countries – the way the Census groups nationalities would deserve a separate discussion – are the main contributors to this group.

Chart 3, instead, focuses on the country of origin of new parents. The inclusion of information on both mothers and fathers is a relatively new and important addition to the Census and offers some insights on the microlevel of family relations and can inform reflection on the relationship between legal status (public sphere) and intra-hosehold relations (private sphere), with an additional intergenerational dimension if we take into account the experience and positions of children born in the UK. This has interesting resonances with current litereature on the biopolitics of mixing.

chart 3 census 2011Chart 3 should be read together with the data coming from the Census 2011 ethnic/racial categories (problematic as they are!) that shows that 12% (2 million) of households includes members of different ethnic groups in 2011, a 3% increase on 2001.

(Source: Office of National Statistics, Census 2011: Data sets and reference tables)

Net migration back on the headlines

The Office for National Statistics has released its quarterly update on UK net migration. This time the figure, 183,000, is ‘favourable’ for the UK government. This is a drop of about 25% from the previous quarter, mainly the result of the increase emigration of Britons is search of better opportunities abroad (this is what migration is mostly about)  and the recent UKBA’s scaremongering campaign against universities and further education colleges (e.g. London Met) that has made the UK a less attractive destination of overseas students. But what exactly ‘favourable’ means here? As I have argued in the past on this blog, the UK government’s decision to use the quantum of net migration as an indicator of its success or failure in relation to the governance of migration is questionable for multiple reasons. I discussed this in a talk on ‘Unwanted’ immigrants and the liberal state I gave last year at the Alumni Weekend at the University of Oxford. My talk starts at 17’52”.

Operation Mayapple: Another name & shame campaign from the UK government

A few years ago the Labour government launched a name & shame campaign against employers who employed undocumented migrants and fined them with up to £10,000 for each worker. More recently the coalition government has employed a similar strategy to tackle tax avoidance . Following what must be deemed a successful model, in a similar fashion today the Home Office Border Agency is advertising the results of its latest law & order campaign named Mayapple started in May this year. The campaign is mostly a PR operation that comes after a series of fiascos in migration and border management (some self-inflicted as in the case of the ‘net migration’ policy) that have seriously affected the reputation of the Home Office and its Border Agency.

Video and photo cameras were sent with UKBA officers to film ‘law & order’ operations (maybe inspired by the experience accumulated with the participation to the UK Border Force TV series).

However, this is not a PR operation for the 2000 migrants who having overstayed and/or breached the terms of their visas had to return home.  One third was made of Indian citizens. The rest were mostly from Pakistan, Nigeria, China, Bangladesh and Brazil.

One is left wondering if there is any rationale behind these countries of origin. A devil’s advocate may argue that there is not one rationale but three. To maximise impact and minimise troubles, the ‘illegal migrants’ were carefully cherry picked according to the following criteria: a) no women and no children because human rights activists could make a fuss; b) no citizens of rich and wealthy allies (i.e. US, Canada and Australia) because their embassies could raise a few eyebrows; c) no white people because they don’t fit the stereotype of the ‘illegal’ migrants, and, added benefit, the choice would please a section of the right-wing electoral body.

There is also a further aspect to consider. As shown in an excellent piece published in the Brixton Blog, the Operation Mayapple doesn’t affect only the ‘illegal migrants’ who are eventually removed or the approval rating of  Damian Green, local residents in areas that have been targeted by UKBA’s raids feel criminalised and angered by UKBA’s heavy-handiness during the arrests. After last year’s riots, the Home Office should be wary of exacerbating community relations to achieve short term political gains.

The Heathrow queue crisis

YouGov has released on 9 May the result of survey on the response of the British public to the government’s handling of the queue crisis at Heathrow terminals. 68% Brits say the Government handled the Heathrow queue crisis badly (36% fairly badly, 32% very badly). However, the results also show that more people would blame the UK Border Agency than the Government. In fact, while a quarter of Britons would blame the Government on the whole for the queue crisis, over a third feels the UK Border Agency is to blame. This result is not surprising as the Government, and in particular the Home Office, has systematically used the UKBA as a scapegoat for its failures in relation to the governance of migration, as I argued in a previous post.

An immanent critique of the UK government’s use of ‘net migration’ as a benchmark for immigration policy

In an interview to BBC Newsnight (25/8/2011) on the latest ONS figures on net migration in the UK, the Immigration minister, Damian Green, defending Cameron’s vision that the annual rate of net migration should be brought down to ‘the tens of thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands’, reiterates that the government will not lower its target on immigration. ‘It’s very important’ – he said – ‘we get immigration at a sustainable level, not just for our economy but for the wider health of society’. Pushing the medical metaphor even further, the minister also compares the dependency of the British economy on foreign workers to a drug addiction. This is nothing new. Elsewhere, he has blamed the previous Labour government for using taxpayer’s money on ineffective ‘palliatives’, instead of on preventive measures. What seems less clear is the diagnosis of the minister: what exactly is this alleged health threat faced by the country? From previous statements and speeches, it would seem that the threat consists of increasing public resentment, social stresses and strains, social conflict, and pressure on public services due to the mass arrival of immigrants in the UK.

If this is the case, can the ‘net migration’ policy deliver?

Let’s make a not-too-unrealistic hypothesis. As a result of the economic and financial downturn and of Osborne’s draconian cuts, the emigration of British workers towards countries which are adopting different economic responses to the global crisis reaches an unprecedented level. Moreover, due to the increase in university fees numerous British students decide to pursue their studies abroad.  As a result of these events, next year the number of people that leaves the UK doubles. If one follows the ‘net migration’ argument, the government should then welcome a larger number of foreigners in the country without this causing social stresses and strains, social conflicts and pressure on public services. Obviously this wouldn’t be the case.

The problem, it seems to me, is that the way the government employs the ‘net migration’ indicator is misleading as it assumes a symmetry that is not there, failing to acknowledge the complexity of in- and out- migration flows and ultimately treating in- and out- migrants as passive goods which can be moved in a out of a warehouse with limited capacity.