Opinion

Immigration is a positive. It's time the UK accepted that fact.

Immigration and infrastructure are not competing demands, writes Daniel Sohege

A photograph taken on March 29, 2023 shows a board reading "Stop Asylum centre" at the entrance of the village of Wethersfield where the British government is planing to house asylum seekers at a former RAF base located in the area.

The UK plans to temporarily house asylum seekers in disused military bases and could use ferries and barges in the future in a bid to reduce hotel bills, immigration minister Robert Jenrick announced on March 29, 2023. Image: Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images)

Immigration to the UK has reached record levels, despite the promises of Brexit and recent government policies. Yet immigration statistics only ever form one part of a far bigger picture. Numbers are never the whole story. We have seen an increase, yet even that is far lower than some of the more outlandish predictions we have seen in recent days.

None of what we are seeing is a surprise though, and in fact is something which we should be celebrating. We are in unusual times, and that leads to unusual figures. The war in Ukraine, persecution in Hong Kong, and the remaining rebalancing of people moving after a global pandemic, are likely creating a short-term blip in how we perceive the number of people coming to the UK. This is not a negative thing. This shows that a post-Brexit Britain is still a place where people feel safe, where they know they can get an excellent education and where they are able to build their lives.

Post-Brexit it is no surprise that we see more non-European Union nationals than EU ones. There’s no real reason to distinguish between the two groups. We have people from around the world who want to come to the UK, that is good. Students for example, despite some rhetoric to the contrary, are shown overwhelmingly to return to their home countries, along with any dependants they may bring, once their studies end. What they also do is take a link to the UK with them. Time and time again we have seen these links help increase the UK’s soft power around the world.

Taking a short-term approach to immigration is a way to ensure long-term failures for the whole country further down the line. We need immigrants. Not as an economic resource, although they do have significant economic benefits. Not as labour, although, again, with an ageing population that is an unquestionable need, but because they form part of our society, part of our communities. In so doing they ground us in a wider international community. That makes us more prosperous and secure as a nation.

Immigration is a long way from being “uncontrolled”. Visa fees, length of routes to gaining status, the multitude of hoops and obstacles migrants have to go through and overcome all make for a system which is inherently hostile to many. That people still want to live here despite those issues shows a strength in the country as a whole.

This government has made a policy choice to ignore that. They have ramped up hostile language against migrants. The terminology used against asylum seekers is picked up on by other groups to use against all migrants. There is no need for any of it though. This government, and any future government, needs to start looking at immigration, including those seeking asylum, as the positive it undoubtedly is for this country.

That starts with removing the obstacles they have created. We need a system which shows people that they are valued. No-one, for example, should be forced into destitution by horrendously expensive visa fees, or left in limbo having to wait 10 years before they can be settled. No-one should feel they are “less” than anyone else because they stay at home while their partner works, or because they have come from this country or that country.

Those seeking safety here should be provided with it. That means ensuring they are able to reach the UK through safer and simpler means, and that their applications are processed faster. It means providing them with the right to work while waiting for their asylum claims to be heard.

These are not complex solutions, and there is no one silver bullet which helps everyone. We still need infrastructure and homes for those living here as well as those arriving. We need a functioning national health service and education systems.

By showing the positives of immigration, by showing the different ways in which migrants contribute to the country, and by showing how they form part of our communities, we can invest in all of those things we need. Immigration and infrastructure are not competing demands. They are linked. If you want a country which can benefit everyone, then you need immigration to help facilitate that.

Daniel Sohege is director of human rights organisation Stand For All and a specialist in international refugee law and protection

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