04/03/2013 06:28 GMT | Updated 03/05/2013 06:12 BST

The More the Merrier? Making the Most of Migration


What has allowed hundreds of thousands of Brits to spend their days in the sun in Spain and France has also led to many hopefuls trying their luck in this sceptred isle. Migration has always been something of a double-edged sword. While it can help to plug skill shortages and fuel growth and innovation, it can also put pressure on local services and raise concerns about crime levels and integration.

The issue hit the headlines again this week when figures from the Office for National Statistics revealed net migration to the UK dropped 34% to 163,000 in the year ending June 2012 from 247,000 a year earlier. This should come as a relief to the government, which has pledged to cut the number of migrants. It has already publicly stated concerns about what will happen when restrictions on migrations from Bulgaria and Romania are lifted next year.

Migration is also a key issue for the European Parliament. A report to be debated on 12 March (and voted the following day) advocates a new qualitative rather than quantative approach. It's not about blindly shipping in as many people as possible, but about attracting highly talented workers with skillsets that are missing in our economy. More thought should also be given to successfully integrating them into society and work on this should start before they leave their home country.

It makes sense to look at migration from a European perspective. As Britain and Ireland are in the EU, they are affected by what other member states do to protect their borders and whether they allow migrants entry, since those migrants can travel to other parts of the EU. In addition there is a lot of migration within the EU by European citizens. Not just by Brits deciding to spend their retirement in sunnier climes, but also by unemployed young people trying to find a job elsewhere in Europe. This has been credited with helping to relieve social tensions in countries like Ireland and Portugal as it has helped to reduce unemployment levels.

A comprehensive strategy is needed today to deal with problems tomorrow's. The EP report points out that due to Europe's ageing population its working age population is expected to drop by 14 million over the next 14 years. This will not only have consequences for pensions, but will also lead to skills shortages. Some 380,000 to 700,000 IT posts are set to be vacant by 2015. To attract the best workers, Europe will have to compete with other regions such as the US and the Middle East. But while there is a case to be made for attracting the best and the brightest, the challenge of how to integrate them remains.

The European Parliament report by German Liberal Democrat Nadja Hirsch calls on the European Commission to draw up and introduce a common, criteria-based European points system, which member states could opt into on a voluntary basis. Countries including Canada and Australia already have a similar system.

To help ease integration, pre-departure desks could be set up to assist with language and skills training. The report highlights the importance of language learning and familiarity with the host country's laws, political system and customs. Integration programmes should include history, the rule of law and the values and principles of European democracy.

Migration is a sensitive issue. Given future challenges, coming up with a strategy to maximise the benefits while minimising the disadvantages would be worth the effort.

Photo copyright DrJohn2005