Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Lessons from the Heated Debate on Immigration in the UK

The UK Home Secretary, Theresa May is again under the spotlight on immigration front. Following soon after ‘catgate’, she has spent the week fending off calls for her resignation.  

The Home Secretary is under fire for an instruction to her officials to relax checks on EU biometric passport holders at UK ports and airports during the busy summer period. According to the Home Secretary, officials in the UK Border Agency subsequently went beyond her instruction, relaxing checks on EU non-biometric passports. It is unclear at this stage who authorised what. There have been heated exchanges between the UK Border Agency and the Home Secretary with the head of the UK Border Agency, Brodie Clarke resigning and claiming constructive dismissal.  

It is striking that such a trivial matter can create such a media storm. Observed from afar, the political debate on immigration in the UK time and time again shows itself as reactionary, negative and misinformed.  

This particular debate appears to overlook some basic facts about illegal immigration. That is, the vast majority of migrants to the UK enter legally with a valid work, student or visitor visa – and many then overstay their permitted period and become illegal migrants. Illegal entry and forged passports are not the main problems for the UK Border Agency. Also, as Alan Travis in the Guardian points out, Theresa May’s rationale behind the relaxed checks seems sound: targeted checks are more effective at identifying illegal migrants whereas blanket checks mean more delays and are resource intensive.  

The UK example should be instructive to our own media and public debate. The media has an important role in informing people’s opinions on asylum seekers, refugees and migrants generally and can feed into fuelling racial prejudices and ‘flood gate’ fears. It is worth bearing in mind that the evidence on which media reports are based is often shaky. A recent report by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford identified ten problems with the evidence informing such a debate on immigration. The report shows how difficult it is to accurately assess for example the impact migration has on public services, or even at establishing basic figures for how many illegal immigrants there are in the country.  

We anticipate more difficult times ahead for Theresa May holding what seems to be the poisoned chalice of Cabinet postings. Meanwhile, we hope that our own political and media debate retains a sense of proportion avoids the Daily Mail sensationalism of the UK.  

Brophy Solicitors  

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