It’s time to admit that some immigration problems have no solution

The author is Director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford. Rob McNeil, the observatory’s associate director, also contributed to this article.

The fundamental symbol of the strength of Britain’s borders – often used in print and TV coverage of the Brexit debate – is the white cliffs of Dover. Over the past two years, however, images from Dover have conveyed something very different: a loss of control as more and more small boats arrive in Britain.

Small boat crossings made the headlines again this week after reports emerged of appalling conditions at a migrant processing center in Manston, Kent. Home Secretary Suella Braverman has been criticized for her handling of the situation. But although they and many of their predecessors promised to solve the small boat problem once and for all, no policy has been able to actually do so. This is not surprising: the boat crossings are a complex problem and there is no magic solution. The result is that a serious issue affecting the well-being of thousands of vulnerable migrants and the effective functioning of the immigration system has become a political pawn.

Increased enforcement in cooperation with the French has deterred some people from crossing the Channel, but not enough to have a visible impact on the numbers. Providing safe routes for people coming to the UK to seek asylum has clearly worked in a high-profile case: there are no Ukrainians crossing the English Channel in small boats because they have free access to a program that supports nearly 200,000 people relatively efficiently issued visas to people. But it’s hard to imagine the UK extending this solution to all other nationalities of people crossing the English Channel.

This disconnect between the pressure to “fix” the problem and the difficulty of actually doing it has been a major headache for home secretaries over the years. In the early 2000s, Labor Home Secretary David Blunkett tried to prevent the arrival of asylum seekers through the Channel Tunnel by negotiating the closure of the Sangatte refugee camp outside Calais. However, this camp was a symptom of the problem rather than the cause, and the resulting mess became the Calais ‘Jungle’.

When expectations of what politicians should be able to do exceed the tools they have to achieve it, rhetoric and reality separate. Ministers promise results without taking the actions needed to deliver them. An example is the target imposed by former Prime Minister David Cameron in the 2010s to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands”. Despite significant new restrictions on migrants from outside the EU, it became clear over the decade that lowering this figure was simply not achievable. Rhetoric about the desire to reduce migration persisted even as migration boomed.

Another common result of the mismatch between expectations and deliverability is “token actions,” which look like a solution even though they’re unlikely to produce the desired results. For example, during debates around the 2016 EU referendum, when increasing EU migration came under increasing scrutiny, Cameron tried to hint that it was possible to reduce EU immigration while remaining within the single market. But the rules on vested benefits offered almost no flexibility for this.

Instead, the government negotiated a more limited concession that would have allowed the UK to limit access to welfare for EU citizens had the UK voted to remain. It was extremely unlikely that this would have had a significant impact on EU migration, as most newly arrived EU citizens did not apply for benefits. But doing nothing was not an option. So Cameron returned home with his hard-won welfare concession and set about convincing the public that this would really limit EU migration. Few could be convinced.

Symbolic politics is not an exclusively British phenomenon. Faced with a significant number of asylum seekers in late 2015, EU policymakers developed a development aid program based on the premise that this would reduce the ‘root causes’ of migration in developing countries. Academic evidence has consistently shown that development aid does not reduce migration, and a recent study did found that politicians knew this. But doing nothing would have looked bad, and the relief program was the only plan that enough people could agree on.

We should have some sympathy with the policy makers here. The pressure to propose solutions is great, especially when your political opponent is doing it too. But there are costs too. Ministers who overestimate their ability to solve problems create disappointment in the future. In the long term, it jeopardizes the credibility of politics among voters.

Admitting that government doesn’t always have a perfect solution to some of the thorny issues we face may not win votes, but it would at least bring some honesty to the debate. It’s time to admit that some immigration problems have no solution

Adam Bradshaw

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