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Small Boats, Big Numbers: An Immigration and Cultural Crisis?

As UK inward migration dominates politics, questions of policy remain unanswered. Not only should benefits and costs be considered, says John Marenbon. But more difficult questions of culture and assimilation – on which official messaging is mixed – must be addressed.

This has been a week of small boats and big numbers. The Illegal Migration Bill 2023 continues its stormy passage through the House of Lords – with the full weight of establishment disapproval as anticipated by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s pronouncement that it ‘it fails to live up to our moral responsibility’. Yet the Bill, which proposes to tackle the crisis caused by people crossing the Channel in small boats in breach of immigration controls, has had repeated endorsement by a majority in the elected House of Commons. The Archbishop is entitled to exhort us, individually, to compassion and practical charity towards the oppressed, the displaced and the homeless. But decisions about the limits of migration are national. They are expressed in the law it is for the government to enforce the law on illegal migration, and this is the aim of the Bill. When a government fails to enforce the law, including that on migration, then indeed it fails to live up to its moral responsibilities.

Certainly, there are many questions to consider. Does the international system for refugees need drastic reform given the burdens on first safe countries entered? Should the original notion of refugee status be adapted to today’s world of mass travel? How much more should be done internationally to tackle the conditions in the countries from which people flee? But, since refugee status is a mechanism to save people from immediate danger, not the path to a better life, there is the established principle that they must come directly from a country where they are endangered. From a common-sense point of view, those who do not seek asylum in the first safe country do not therefore have the status of refugees. International law, however, is less clear than common sense. The Bill tries to take account of international law, and so proposes the mildest imaginable way to enforce, as the government ought, Britain’s own existing law on migration.

By contrast, the big numbers are this week’s figures for UK legal migration at 606,000 net migration last year. 1.2 million people came to this country, including overseas workers, foreign students, people coming for family reasons, those fleeing danger (exceptional circumstances account for some of the new arrivals: 114,000 people came from Ukraine, 52,000 from Hong Kong). 557,00 people left.

The problem posed by such migration into the UK is far more serious than that of the small boats, while the ethical issue is far less clear-cut. Take the case of foreign students. The problem epitomizes the whole, larger, problem of legal immigration. Last year almost 486,000 student visas were issued to foreign students with 136,000 student visas to dependants; though even before the numbers were released, the government announced the right to bring dependants would end for MA students from January.

While foreign students can bring Britain benefits – they pay fees to UK universities, they are, economically, important ‘exports’ in terms of UK trade, their presence may save some universities from financial ruin – they also have costs born by this country. Some costs are clear and uncontentious, others less so. Universities will be tempted to distort their academic purpose and courses in seeking custom from foreign students, and to move away from the disinterested pursuit of knowledge and the liberal education of home students, who bring lower fees but will spend their lives in this country. We succumb to the temporary fix foreign students provide for university finances and delay considering how to finance higher education and what proportion of the population will benefit from traditional 3-year degrees. Moreover, foreign students and their families use general resources for healthcare, housing and in some cases school education, generating costs for taxpayers and aggravating shortages.

The parallels to these clear benefits and costs in the wider picture of migration are obvious. Legal migrants fill skill shortages at all levels and so help Britain’s economy, but usually make less of a financial contribution than students paying overseas fees. Like the overseas students they use resources and their presence makes possible the failure to tackle home grown deficiencies. Yet the lack of training to promote a high-skill workforce, the reluctance by too many to work, and the complacency with which we seem to accept a low productivity, low skilled economy needs action, now.

Some maintain that foreign students should be removed from the migration statistics, since most leave after a stay of one or three or several years. There are, indeed, reasons to treat them separately in the figures, but a block of nearly three quarters of a million people, living in Britain but from elsewhere, changing individually but not in total, except to rise, can hardly be ignored when calculating the numbers of migrants. We should, perhaps be even more concerned about foreign students and their families living in Britain for a few years, than long-term immigrants. Some of these long-term immigrants become fully assimilated into the culture and way of life of the country they have chosen as their new home. Foreign students have neither the time, nor the incentive, nor usually the will to conform themselves to their host country.

This is the less obvious, less contentious cost of legal migration in general. With ever more new immigrants each year, added to large numbers of recent and fairly recent arrivals, the country is in danger of losing its cultural identity. Resistance to assimilation amongst newcomers is more marked than in earlier periods, and the path to assimilation, for those who want to follow it, more difficult. The goals of Equality, Diversity and Inclusiveness are trumpeted from every corner of officialdom, the media and Academe. They imply the more disunified the culture, the better. Not everyone, however – and perhaps a silent majority of the population including those who settled here in the decades after World War 2 –would agree.

The high and (arguably) increased figures for legal migration have been widely taken as an indication of the failure of Brexit. But Brexit was never supposed, in itself, to affect the numbers of legal immigrants. Rather, it gave, and gives, Britain the power to determine these numbers.

We have yet to have the national debate, more momentous even than that around Brexit, about whether we value an accommodating, variegated but essentially unified culture, or whether we are willing to accept its disappearance, and should even welcome it. Let us hope that we can have that debate honestly and openly, and that it is free from the unconsidered moralizing that has marred discussion about the small boats and their human cargo.

Professor John Marenbon FBA

Professor John Marenbon is a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge and the British Academy. His recent publications include Medieval Philosophy: an historical and philosophical introduction and Pagans and Philosophers. The Problem of Paganism from Augustine to Leibniz.  Politeia publications include Intangible Assets: Funding Research in the Arts and Humanities, co-published with New Direction.

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