The Government's Net Migration Target Is Doing More Harm Than Good

It is right that the government has prioritised immigration in this parliament, given the high levels of public concern. But there are other, more nuanced options for dealing with these concerns.

There are no easy answers for the government on immigration. The latest figures - estimating that net migration in the year up to June 2015 is now 330,000, higher than the previous peak - reveal that the government has moved further away from its target of net migration in the "tens of thousands", just as it redoubles its efforts to bring the numbers down. At the same time, concerns about migration have reached their highest ever level, with half the British public placing it as one of the most important issues facing Britain.

So who's to blame? Immigration minister James Brokenshire today is in no doubt - the figures should "act as a further wake-up call for the EU", he says, and British business is "overly reliant on foreign workers". It's certainly true that immigration from within the EU has increased over the past year. But so has immigration from outside the EU - and even if EU net migration were two thirds lower, total net migration would still be over the government's target. Similarly, businesses may be partly responsible for hiring migrant workers, but the government has already put a cap on the number of skilled non-EU migrants that can be sponsored by employers to come to the UK, and many migrants are coming through other routes.

Instead, the government should take some responsibility for setting the net migration target in the first place. It's now clear that the target is not going to be reachable any time soon - and its continual failure is further undermining public trust. Moreover, in its current form, the government's migration target is not just unrealistic - it is actually susceptible to a number of perverse incentives. As the government introduces new measures in the coming months, its own target is undermining success in other crucial policy areas.

First, using net migration as the key measure is unwise because it does not factor in churn. If very high levels of migration were matched with similarly high levels of emigration then net migration would be very low. So the government's primary focus on net migration means that it is more or less happy to welcome incoming migrants as long as they leave before long. For instance, business secretary Sajid Javid has said he is determined to "break the link" between study and work and wants to encourage students to leave after they complete the studies. But this model of immigration - where migrants come and go and do not settle - appears to be exactly the opposite of the model that works well for communities facing incoming migrant flows. Our studies indicate that communities cope better with migrants that settle and contribute - and face greater challenges with transient migrants that make no effort to fit in.

Second, an almost exclusive focus on the net migration target risks harming the economy and vital public services. Take one example. The government recently asked the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to advise on the impacts of increasing the salary threshold for skilled migrants to come and work in the UK. The MAC reported that crudely increasing the salary threshold would probably reduce net migration, but it would have other damaging policy effects. In particular, it could place serious pressure in the health and education sectors, whose employees would be more likely to not meet a higher threshold.

Third, the net migration target has tied the government's hands with respect to Europe's migrant crisis. There are pragmatic and sensible options to controlling the chaos in Calais - but they do involve taking in a small number of the genuine refugees trying to get to Britain. Such a route would seriously boost UK-EU relations ahead of the all-important renegotiations. And it would have little impact on the total net migration figures, given the estimated numbers in Calais are small (estimates vary between around 3000 and 5000). Yet a fear of increasing net migration by even a small amount is likely a key factor in the Government's limited approach to taking in refugees, particularly when compared to other European countries such as Germany. On this issue, as with others, the government isn't helping itself by sticking rigidly to the net migration target.

It is right that the government has prioritised immigration in this parliament, given the high levels of public concern. But there are other, more nuanced options for dealing with these concerns. The government should prioritise the introduction of its Controlling Migration Fund to support communities facing pressures on public services. And it can address some of the perverse incentives in the net migration target by ensuring that the Prime Minister's Immigration Taskforce assesses net migration alongside other measures, such as levels of churn and the disaggregated flows of different types of immigrants. Finally, given the developing humanitarian crisis in Europe, it should consider taking asylum out of the net migration target altogether and recognise it as a special route for people trying to seek refuge from conflict and oppression.

The government faces a series of difficult trade-offs on migration policy, and there will always be some disagreement in this highly contested area. But (as others have argued) there is room for an approach that addresses these trade-offs head on - and begins to address public concern in the process.


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