The Immigration Debate
Whether it’s heated debates over EU membership or the plight of Syrian migrants, immigration is a topic rarely out of the media spotlight. Anthony Coleman speaks to two City academics, Professor of Law Daniel Wilsher and Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics Dr Iosif Kovras, to discuss missing migrants, detention centres and what needs to happen to bring about positive change.
Q: Let’s start with you, Iosif. Tell us about your research project.
Iosif Kovras: I’m originally from Lesbos, which is the focus of a humanitarian crisis as Syrian migrants try to reach Europe. Along with a colleague, I have a research grant to look at what happens to migrants who go missing or die crossing the Mediterranean. We want to understand if some of the lessons of how post-conflict societies have dealt with the missing could be useful in improving policy responses to the problem.
So far we’ve collected around 130 interviews in Greece, Italy, Tunisia and refugee camps in Turkey. These include interviews with local authorities and the families of those missing. We want to understand what are the steps and policies to identifying dead bodies and the needs and experiences of families involved. We need to know the obstacles they face.
Q: What have you found so far?
IK: In Greece, the state institutions are very weak or have collapsed totally because of the economic crisis, so NGOs and local activists have stepped up to support families. There’s a real lack of policy in place to give information to families; often social media fills the gap. Local authorities focus resources on living migrants rather than identifying the dead. The families don’t have rights or a voice, so it’s a non-issue in the political agenda.
Q: How well do you think Greece and Europe have dealt with the Syrian crisis?
IK: It’s become almost impossible for the Greek government to address this problem, given its economy and the sheer volume of migrants. Over the last 18 months they’ve received almost a million – about a tenth of the population. But there’s also been an inability of the Greek state to demand financial help and expertise from the EU.
Daniel Wilsher: I think Europe should have seen this coming a bit earlier. People have been in refugee camps for a long time, so it was only natural that they would start to try and get here.
The EU is behaving like any group of nations: they don’t want refugees. Countries in the Middle East have taken millions of migrants and kept them in a basic kind of existence; they don’t necessarily give them equal human rights, but don’t throw them back either. Europe is different. If we let them in we have to integrate them and give them equal rights and that’s a much bigger task, a lot more challenging, so I don’t really blame Europe in one sense. Economically, it can easily take a million people, but it’s the politics that’s the problem.
Ideally the EU needs some kind of quotas across countries, which is something the EU is trying to sort out and which seems a fairer system than sending them back to the country they entered.
Immigration was one of the central points in the debate over whether the UK should leave the EU. What’s your view on that?
IK: It was a bit unfair to the other very important issues related to the referendum, but we should keep in mind the positive effects of migration, which have not been highlighted.
IK: In the UK and across the EU we have ageing populations and declining birth rates. With all these migrants coming into Europe, any policy that could incorporate some of them would boost growth, employment and public finances.
DW: There are about three million EU migrant workers and around eight to nine million migrant workers in general in the UK. They make up a good proportion of the workforce in many sectors – healthcare, tourism, manufacturing, retail, agriculture and so on – so they’re part of the backbone of the economy. It’s implausible that there are huge reservoirs of British workers ready to step into those jobs.
I understand why people get worried about immigration when you see wages stagnating and pressure on public services. However, we’re not producing enough skilled workers and immigration is as much a symptom as a cause. It is sometimes said that stopping migrants coming in is a ‘magic bullet’ to solving all these problems, but in all likelihood it isn’t.
Q: As a migrant yourself, Iosif, what’s been your personal experience of coming to the UK?
IK: So far very happy and very positive. I appreciate the meritocracy here and working in a multicultural environment. Living in London, it’s a vibrant and colourful city.
Q: Daniel, as well as an academic you’re also an immigration tribunal judge. What does that involve?
DW: The Home Office makes a decision on asylum cases and I sit on the bench of judges that hears their appeals. Asylum cases tend to come down to whether they’re believed or not and the government often says there’s not enough proof. Our job is to assess cases very carefully and apply the law. Around 40 per cent of appeals are successful, so we’re an essential safeguard.
Q: One of the controversial aspects of immigration is the use of detention centres, which you’ve written a book about.
DW: The UK detains around 30,000 people every year, without trial and at a cost of about £30,000 to £40,000 per person per year. Detention can range from a couple of weeks to a couple of years or more. The vast majority of people are never found guilty of any crime and most don’t understand why they’re being detained, other than they know their immigration status is in dispute. It’s also not totally clear why one person is detained over another. Risk of absconding is the main reason, but it’s very hard to pick out who’s going to abscond.
Q: What’s the effect of detention?
DW: There’s an increasing amount of evidence associated with mental health problems, depression and anxiety. People live in a prison-like environment – not quite the same as prison but overall it’s a closed environment. There’s also the general uncertainty over what’s happening to them. The system was designed to gain control over asylum numbers, but it’s not clear that it helps much with removal. Figures have remained stagnant, so it’s not really effective or cost-effective.
Q: What’s the alternative?
DW: The recent Shaw review, commissioned by the government, said that the current scale of detention is disproportionate. But studies show you can get pretty good compliance using bail and possibly tagging. You can assign someone to live at an address and they can then report regularly to immigration or police. Giving them access to a lawyer would also help them understand what’s going on; people who feel they’ve had a fair hearing are more likely to accept that they have to leave.
Immigration Detention: Law, History, Politics by Professor Daniel Wilsher is available from Cambridge University Press.
Find out more about Dr Iosif Kovras’s research is on his website.
Anthony Coleman is one half of copywriting studio Two Copywriters. He writes for clients in sectors as diverse as education, engineering, healthcare, food and construction.