Thursday, 16 April 2009

Amnesties and public opinion

Keith Best, Chief Executive of the Immigrant Advisory Service (IAS), discusses what the British public might think of a regularisation programme for undocumented migrants.

“There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune”

So is Brutus’ advice in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. We might think of a more modern idiom of striking while the iron is hot – but enough of these pleasantries! The real issue is when is the public going to be ready for an earned regularisation programme? Probably, at the present time even in a period of recession because many recognise that irregular migrants are now doing jobs that others, whether unemployed or not, are unwilling or unable to undertake.

Clearly, with the notable exception of the Liberal Democrats, however, the politicians are not so inclined. They are fearful of giving ground to the BNP and the anti-immigrant lobby and that attitude is hardly likely to weaken this side of a general election which, by law, has to take place no later than just over a year from now. If the local and European elections in June favour the far right and go against the Government then the attitude will be reinforced. A bleak prospect for those of us who will gather on 4 May for the rally in favour of earned regularisation?

Not really. The amount of civic and religious society commitment towards this goal as well as what we see as public opinion (not the recent poll which indicated that the majority want to see illegal migrants removed – the question was not asked about those who are already working) shows more support than we have had in the past. The momentum is growing – maybe the tide is approaching its flood. May 4 will be a turning point. If there is mass support then we can keep that momentum going; if not, we shall have to retire to our tents to lick our wounds.

From a strategic point of view we need more stories of those who are working, albeit illegally, who are undertaking vital tasks and who are not being exploited unscrupulously by employers. Sadly, there will be many cases where the opposite is true and where regularisation could save these workers from much misery. The general public, however, will not be moved to support those who are undercutting the minimum wage and we should be honest about this.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor the outgoing head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales has called on the Government to provide an amnesty for illegal immigrants who have been resident in the UK for several years. If, in retirement, he is elevated to the Lords he may become a leading and impressive independent advocate.

On 31 March 2006 Nigel Morris in the Independent reported that “From London's building sites to farms in East Anglia, and from late-night takeaways to the treacherous sands of Morecambe Bay, they generally fill the jobs deemed too menial or too hazardous by UK nationals. If discovered, they face deportation. But according to a radical new study published today, an amnesty on their status could be worth up to £6bn to the economy. By giving the hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants in Britain a promise that they will not be deported, at least £1bn a year would be raised in taxes, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has calculated. The left-leaning think-tank, which has the ear of Downing Street, also warns that government plans to tighten restrictions on bona fide migrants could have the perverse effect of driving more "illegals" underground.” The article went on to report that nearly 50% of foreign-born immigrants leave Britain within five years and that migrants fill 90% of low-paid jobs in London and account for 29% of the capital's workforce. London is the UK's fastest-growing region. No wonder Mayor Boris Johnson is in favour – think of all those votes if they could be exercised legally!

Migration Watch predictably warns that an amnesty for illegal immigrants in Britain should be rejected because “it is wrong in principle to reward illegal behaviour and
amnesties have demonstrably failed in other EU countries and are strongly opposed by the French and German governments. In the past 20 years Italy has granted five amnesties and Spain six. The only effect has been growing numbers of applicants and increased pressure on the borders.”

The Government and the Opposition have ruled out an amnesty – yet it was not always the case. Whether through naivety or inexperience on 20 June 2006 Liam Byrne MP, appointed as immigration minister only 15 days previously, told the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee that an amnesty could not be ruled out and agreed with The Voice’s call for common sense to prevail in tackling illegal immigration.

It is often forgotten that some 30,000 asylum seekers were given a status in order to take them off the backlog of over 100,000 that had developed some years ago, then there was the family amnesty: in total, according to a 2008 Centre Forum report “If these various exercises are calculated cumulatively, excluding the de facto regularisations that occurred with European expansion but including the asylum backlog-clearing exercises, the current Labour government has regularised between 60,000 and 100,000 persons since 1997.” On the accession of the A8 countries to the EU on 1 May 2004 a large number of those who went on to register under the Workers Registration Scheme were reckoned to have been in the UK illegally before that date.

Then there is the experience from abroad – much mistaken and misrepresented by those who wish to denigrate the concept of regularisation. Again, Centre Forum’s report is to be commended by giving the true picture on both the Spanish and Italian situations and demonstrates that what actually happened is far from the way in which it has been portrayed by those who wish to use these experiences as evidence against a similar exercise in the UK.

Keith Best
Chief Executive IAS

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