No one can have been unmoved by the image of three year old Alan Kurdi, drowned on the last stretch of the family’s flight from war in Syria to safety in the European Union. Thousands fleeing war, persecution, poverty and the chaos of changing climate have died in the attempt to cross the Mediterranean. Human traffickers pack desperate people into flimsy boats. Despite many tragedies, people continue to risk everything.
Between 2016 and 2019, Sweden granted asylum to 12 per thousand population, Germany 10. The UK’s rate was 1 per thousand (Peter William-Walsh, Migration Observatory, University of Oxford). Looking at the whole picture of people migrating for any reason, net migration (immigration minus emigration) to the UK in 2019 is estimated to have been 270,000. The number of EU citizens migrating here dropped sharply after the EU referendum, whereas the number of non-EU arrivals rose, then stabilised over 2019.
Whatever the driver, immigration is a contentious topic. People fear dilution of national identity and culture. Immigrants are accused of taking jobs and housing from locals and being benefits scroungers. Unease about people with different ideas, customs and appearance is fed by sections of the press. Throughout history immigrants to the UK have faced resentment or outright hostility, before being grudgingly accepted and eventually becoming part of the fabric of life in the British Isles.
Can we think more positively about immigration? Research published in the New Scientist in 2016 showed most immigrants actively want to work and will do work locals reject. On average immigrants pay as much in taxes as they take in benefits. EU workers in the UK, overwhelmingly young and educated in their own country, have put considerably more into the economy than they have taken out (New Scientist).
In 2008 Domenico Lucano, mayor of Riace in Calabria, was asked to accept 450 refugees in the town of 1,800. He realised that deteriorating housing, emptied by the exodus of young people from the south of Italy, could be repaired and used by refugees, who could also be trained in traditional crafts lost from the town. The scheme created work for locals as well as refugees. In 2010 he was awarded a World Mayor commendation for compassion and courage. Riace was reinvigorated and thrived for a decade. Then in October 2018, with hostility to asylum seekers fanned by the Liga party in the coalition government, Lucano was was arrested and subsequently prosecuted on charges of favoring illegal immigration, embezzlement and abuse of office. His trial is still ongoing.
In a more haphazard way, this revival of economies has been going on in the UK. Local depopulation lowers housing costs, which in turn attracts immigrants. Places as diverse as Redditch and Herefordshire have had an influx of young immigrants, keen to work. In consequence schools, shops, health centres and other services start to become viable again. Such areas, evolving from communities top-heavy with older people often reliant on the NHS and care, have a more balanced age structure and consequently more financial self-sufficiency. Indeed, the UK Office for Budget Responsibility calculated pre-Covid that if the number of immigrants doubled, government debt would fall by almost a third.
The benefits of immigration are of course not solely financial. Successive waves of Huguenots, Dutch, Irish, Jews, Italians, West Indians, Asians, Africans have brought energy, innovation, courage, determination and skills and provided countless artists, scientists, politicians, explorers, doctors, educators. They have influenced our language, food, architecture, literature, music, our ways of seeing the world.
Without our global army of care-workers , looking after us in times of vulnerability, where on earth would we be? Perhaps it is time to recognise the contribution of immigrants in general as well as to be more open to offering shelter to people fleeing horrors we cannot begin to imagine.