What do migrants think of immigration policy?

Our Director, Jerome Phelps, reflects on migrant responses to The National Conversation – an extension of the Home Affairs Select Committee’s inquiry into what a post-Brexit immigration system might look like.

What do migrants think of immigration policy? The question suddenly matters more than ever, as the Government considers whether and how to create a whole new immigration system following Brexit.  The discussion often assumes that the voices that matter are those of Leave voters concerned about ‘uncontrolled migration’, but a system that ignores the views of the people directly affected is unlikely to satisfy anyone.

Last week, the Home Affairs Select Committee published a report based on a wide-ranging inquiry into how to build greater consensus on immigration policy.  As part of the inquiry, the National Conversation involved discussions in towns and cities around the UK, asking panels of local people with moderate views about what they thought a consensual immigration system could look like.  The Committee found that ‘that there exists considerable public appetite for engagement on immigration and much common ground on which to build consensus’.

In order to ensure that what migrants themselves were heard in the conversation, Detention Action, Scottish Detainee Visitors and Coventry Refugee and Migration Centre asked migrants in Glasgow and Coventry their views on the immigration system, based on their own experiences.  As part of the National Conversation, two panels of migrant experts shared their opinions and experiences of immigration and integration in general, and the Home Office in particular.

The results were striking.  Glasgow and Coventry are cities that pride themselves on welcoming refugees and migrants, and both panels described their communities as more welcoming than elsewhere.  Yet even here, in cities with substantial support and integration networks, migrants felt frustrated and alienated by the system.

In Glasgow, panellists described the system as ‘cruel’, ‘slow’ and ‘unfair’.  Those who had been refused asylum felt stuck in limbo: one panellist explained that ‘This is my fourteenth year in the UK.  It seems to me I walked into a prison.’  The Home Office not only denied them the right to work, but made following the rules unnecessarily stressful.  The obligation to report regularly to the Home Office felt like an irrational punishment: ‘for eleven years I’ve been reporting every week, fortnight, month.’  Every time, that meant ‘I got everything ready for detention. I had a bag, gave my keys to a friend.  You can imagine how stressful that situation is, you don’t know when you’ll be home again.’

Panellists saw the Home Office every week or month.  But that didn’t mean that they spoke to anyone.  In fact, many told of not being informed of crucial developments in their cases.  There was little understanding of why cases were granted or refused: decision-making was experienced as the arbitrary machinations of an incomprehensible bureaucracy.

However, bleak as the conversations often were, nothing suggested that consensus on immigration policy is impossible.  None of the panellists rejected the legitimacy of immigration governance in principle: they just experienced it in practice as irrational and unjust.  Panellists with and without status shared a sense of bafflement at the wastefulness of expensive enforcement tools like detention: ‘my tax is unwisely spent on detention centre and deportations which are then overturned, there is no accountability’.

In a couple of short hours, the panels didn’t solve the problems of the immigration system.  But if the system is seen as unfair, cruel and ineffective, what would an alternative system look like if it was based on fairness, dignity and effectiveness?  The panels highlighted a series of points in the system that drive migrants into frustration and mistrust.  At each point, what is the alternative?

At reporting, instead of queuing for hours each week or month to sign their names and leave, migrants could have a regular conversation with an official who knows their case.  It would take more resources, but it’s far from impossible: the Swedish Migration Board employs case managers who do just this, communicating regularly with migrants from start to finish of their cases.

It is no coincidence that Sweden makes little use of detention, with only around 300 places, despite much higher numbers of asylum-seekers than the UK.  By talking to migrants instead of detaining them, Sweden finds that they don’t abscond, and don’t need to be locked up.  Detention centres, it hardly needs to be said, cost far less than case managers.

Case management can be part of alternatives to detention that address the migration governance priorities of governments (and the anxieties of anxious local populations), without detention.  Support can be tailored to the needs, risks and vulnerabilities of particular groups of migrants, to enable them to resolve their cases in the community without detention.  And without the expense, trauma and alienation that detention brings.

This would ultimately involve a wholesale change of culture in the Home Office, from a reliance on enforcement to engagement.  Moving from locking migrants up to talking to them may seem unlikely to reassure people worried about uncontrolled immigration.  But it may be the only way for the immigration system to be effective, the key concern of the anxious.

After Brexit, many millions of current and future EU nationals will be subject to immigration control.  If the current system of enforcement is extended to them, the costs will be astronomical: dozens of new detention centres would be needed.  Shrinking departmental budgets rule this out, and the Home Office is actually reducing the detention estate with closure of The Verne last month.  Alternatives to detention will be necessary, and could point the way to much wider change.

A different approach, engagement not enforcement, may appear a tough sell in Brexit Britain.  But ultimately it is the only way to an immigration system based on consensus, including the consent of migrants.  And without consulting migrants, without their consent, immigration policy will continue to fail, ruining lives and losing trust on all sides.