Three questions for better immigration debates

This blog post is the long version of an op-ed published by The Spectator on July 14th, 2014.

Politicians tend to get all the blame for immigration policies not working. But politicians are often doomed to fail on migration questions because there are deep-rooted problems with the way we all debate immigration and with what we expect of immigration policy.

In the UK, immigration is guaranteed to be a key focal point of public debate in the run-up to the general election next year. There is widespread agreement that Britain and many other high-income countries need ‘better’ immigration debates – but how can that be achieved? Over the past year I have been developing an online course on international labour migration for Oxford University which deals with this question.

Debates about immigration around the world typically suffer from three fundamental problems that need to be addressed head on – and not just by politicians, also by journalists and any members of the public who want to participate in the debate: The first is an unrealistic understanding of the capacity of nation states to regulate immigration; the second, a refusal to acknowledge that immigration inevitably creates both winners and losers; and the third, a failure to make clear the ethical starting points of different arguments for and against migration.

Limits of nation states

A fundamental problem in many debates about immigration policy is a failure to appreciate the role and capacity of nation states to regulate the admission and rights of migrants. Two extreme positions are popular. Many people assume and expect that nation states should be in ‘complete control’ of immigration. This is the impression that we frequently get from looking at public opinion data and many media reports that deal with the public’s views on immigration policy.

At the other extreme, many people argue that because of the ‘unstoppable’ forces of globalisation and increasing interconnectedness between different countries, national borders are increasingly ‘beyond control’ for national policy-makers. The implication is that international migration is ‘inevitable’ and nation states’ policies can do little or nothing to change that. This suggests that the policy challenge is to manage the consequences of immigration rather than its scale and composition.

Both of these popular positions are clearly wrong. The migration (and other) policies of nation states play a key role in influencing the scale, composition and effects of international migration. To give the most obvious example, restrictive immigration policies are a major reason why only a relatively small share of people who wish to migrate to other countries are able to do so in practice, and why, despite huge inequalities across countries, international migrants constitute only three percent of the global population.

At the same time, it should be equally obvious that no country is or even can be in complete control over immigration. National policy-makers face a range of constraints when deciding how to regulate the admission and rights of migrants including, for example, legal obligations arising from domestic laws and membership in regional or international institutions as well as basic capacity constraints due to, among other things, the financial costs of immigration controls.

One way of debating how to regulate immigration is to ask how the costs and benefits of immigration control compare to the impacts of immigration that would occur if certain controls were not in place. Importantly, the costs and benefits in this debate are not only financial but also involve social effects and civil liberty considerations. Put bluntly, how much money and how many restrictions of civil liberties (which are an inevitable by-product of increased immigration controls) are we willing to accept in exchange for greater controls on immigration?


A second fundamental problem in many immigration debates is that they are often – and arguably in many countries increasingly so – dominated by
“immigration hardliners” who characterize whatever type of migration they are discussing as ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’. But in practice, the impacts of migration always involve both costs and benefits, and until governments engage in honest debate about the multifaceted impacts and inescapable trade-offs created by migration, migration debates will remain confused.

There are numerous short-term and long-term trade-offs in global labour migration that need to be explicitly considered. For example, in the short run, more low-skilled immigration in the UK and other high-income countries can benefit employers and consumers, but sometimes at the expense of those resident workers who are competing with new migrants in the job market. In the longer run, more low-skilled migrants may lead to more investment in the economy, thus raising labour demand, employment opportunities and wages for all workers.

For another example, as I discuss in my recent book The Price of Rights, workers from low-income countries such as Nepal employed on infrastructure projects in oil-rich states such as Qatar may be appallingly exploited and abused, but they have opportunities for income generation that they could never find in their home countries. So for workers in poor countries, employment in higher-income countries often involves a trade-off between “access” and “rights”. Low-income countries are acutely aware of this trade-off. This is why few of them insist on full and equal rights for their workers abroad, for fear of reduced access to the labour markets of higher-income countries.

Many governments, organisations and people refuse to acknowledge and discuss the inevitability of trade-offs in immigration policy making. Too much of policy makers’ time seems to be spent trying to find some sort of political middle ground between “no migrants” and “no borders”, when what is really needed a is transparent analysis and debates about the costs and benefits of migration and – importantly – how the various impacts affect different groups. Hard realism about trade-offs in international migration needs to replace the common avoidance strategies.


The third and perhaps most fundamental problem with many migration debates is that many people do not make clear the ethical starting points underlying their arguments about migration. To debate the question “How should we regulate immigration?”, we obviously need to discuss policy objectives and, critically in whose interests policies should be made.

We often hear national policy-makers say that they are restricting immigration in the best ‘national interest’ – but what does that mean? To what extent, if at all, should our immigration policies take account of the interests of migrants and their countries of origin? How do we balance the sometimes competing interests of employers and workers? These are exceedingly difficult moral questions with no right answer. Because they necessarily involve both inclusion and exclusion, these fundamental ethical questions make most people uncomfortable and are therefore often avoided. But avoiding these issues just serves to compound the problem of confused public debates and unclear policy-making on migration.

Better policies on migration require a better public debate. As Britain moves into a period of increasingly pressurized immigration debates in the run-up to the national elections, we urgently need more open discussion about the limitations of the nation state, the inescapable trade-offs in migration, and – perhaps most fundamentally – the policy objectives, including the underlying ethical questions.