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We Should Defend and Extend Migrant Rights, Not Take Them Away

1st April 2017

By Hugh Lanning

The wave of hatred that is sweeping Britain blames migrants for a wide range of social ills. We should not pander to anti-immigrant sentiment in a race we cannot win and should never want to,” says the founding statement of the Alliance for Free Movement.

For years Labour accepted austerity for fear of losing electoral credibility; now, it seems, we are doing the same on immigration. In going along with the myths, Labour is seeking an unholy grail it will never find - the ‘progressive anti-immigration policy’ that will win back Labour’s traditional votes. Immigration is a real issue that has to be confronted, but not by accepting the lies which have made it so toxic.

Lie No.1 is that immigration is the cause of the problems many people face. The real danger here is that we will be exposed by Lie No.2. If immigration is not the cause, then stopping it will not solve the problems. Lie No.3 is that we can stop immigration - we might drive migration underground into the hands of criminals, but we won’t stop it.

Lie No.4 is that we want to stop migration and don’t need it. As the Brexit negotiations unwind, it will become clear that we do need migration, as we have an aging, under-skilled population. But what is being proposed is a selective immigration policy - if you are white, rich or skilled, that’s fine. If not, we still might want you, but we don’t want to give you rights to remain. Lie No.5 is that migration is a bad thing. In fact migration is an essential factor in our heritage and history. It has enabled us to become a rich, multicultural country and is essential for our future prosperity, too.

The key to tackling public perceptions of immigration is developing a communitybased approach which improves both migrant experiences and the lives of host communities - making the best of all parts of the community, neither isolation nor forced integration. There is a natural integration that flows from working, whether you are a migrant or not. If you are unemployed and poor you are isolated, whatever your colour or religion.

Migration is not a short-term or temporary event, but needs long-term solutions. We must invest in work-based solutions - training and upskilling for all who need it, ESOL courses, skill centres, Sure Start and care provision. This will only happen if everyone is given the chance to earn a legitimate living and treated as productive residents who will contribute to the economy.

It is not enough to describe the general effects of migration - positive or negative - at the macro level, it needs to be honestly set out locally as well. There should be a community needs analysis that looks at skills, jobs, taxes, population, housing and the environment. This would define the public service and investment needs for the community. Then - constituency by constituency - Labour would be able to set out the issues and answers based on real community needs, not just fears and prejudices.

Having identified the needs, Labour should advocate the required investment to ensure there are resources to match. If done with community involvement, we can build progressive local alliances to fight for common aims: public service investment; public, affordable housing in the regions of fast growth; skills training to fill skills gaps; and protecting workers’ rights.

We have a choice: building an island fortress or investing to make migration safe and secure for migrants and communities alike. Border controls should be rights-based, about security, crime and customs control with staffing to match.

However, the main investment should be in strengthening all those enforcement agencies involved in regulating the rights of people at work. Rather than trying to ‘catch’ individuals at the border we should invest in creating safe workplaces, ensuring employers comply with employment rights and implementing properly the law concerning health and safety, minimum wage, tax and national insurance, gangmasters and people trafficking.

Economist Jonathan Portes says as a result of Brexit, “we will probably be poorer.” His point is that it is wrong to believe we are somehow ‘trading off’ the economic benefits of the Single Market against the downsides of free movement. Restricting trade, capital flows and immigration - reducing the openness of the UK economy - all have negative economic impacts. “If we want to make an economic success of Brexit, that will mean making openness - to migration as much as trade - a priority in our policies with respect to both the EU and the rest of the world”, he explains.

Freedom of movement is not the problem - it is part of the solution in or out of Europe. We should defend and extend migrant rights, not take them away.

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