At the end of February, Britain’s Office for National Statistics produced its migration statistics quarterly report. Some 532,000 people immigrated to the UK in the year ending September 2013, a little up from 497,000 the previous year. Taking into account that fewer Britons left the country and fewer non-EU citizens came in, there was an estimated net flow of 212,000 long-term migrants to the UK, a “statistically significant increase from 154,000 in the previous year”. The net gain included more than 60,000 additional long-term migrants from the EU. 

These figures give ammunition to the popular concern amongst Britons, aided and abetted by a heady mixture of red-top tabloid journalism and pronouncements of the UK Independence Party, that inward migration is too high. Given the parlous state of the global economy, slowly clawing its way out of the deep holes of financial credit crunch and recession, the British are clamouring to slow the flow of foreigners who seek residence here.

Who can blame them? Immigrants are often willing to work in manual labour, undercutting the wages demanded by locals and driving a “race to the bottom”. The cultural costs of immigration are high: with English spoken poorly or not at all, hospitals, courts, government offices and schools need translators and foreign-language materials to conduct their business. More people require public utilities, access to public services and, of course, housing. The cultural pressures on local communities are intense: indigenous residents can feel alienated by a concentrated influx of differently-dressed, darker-skinned people, who make little effort to assimilate, who speak, marry and socialise amongst themselves in incomprehensible tongues, and often don’t even drink or visit the pub.

In mid-2013,two books published by authors on both the centre-right and the left decried the costs of high immigration levels. Not only do the real costs of population “diversity” outweigh any illusory benefits, but social and cultural heterogeneity breaks down the normative bonds which keep an expensive social welfare system functioning. The greater the difference, the less each participant feels bound to his fellow man, and the less legitimacy he bestows on the redistribution mechanisms of liberal governance.

Exodus: immigration and multiculturalism

Into the fracas comes Sir Paul Collier, professor of economics and expert on development, particularly in Africa, with Exodus: immigration and multiculturalism in the 21st Century. The book is a neat weaving together of research into immigration conducted over many years, in effect a meta-analysis of evidence. This may sound heavy fare, but Exodus doesn’t read like a cobbled-together review of academic papers, but more like an extended op-ed, chatty and to-the-point.

Collier’s fame is justified because he offers new insights into current affairs and matters we think we know a lot about. His prologue is a good example of this, emphasising the gradations in migration and degrees of separation between homeland to host-land in a potted history of his own family. His professed aim is to break the taboo that blocks serious discussion of migration, namely, accusations of racism and a tendency towards rank nationalism.

In Britain, thirteen years of non-discussion of migration finally came to an end in 2010 with the formation of the Coalition Government and the realisation that four million extra people had settled in the UK since 1997 under successive ill-conceived migration policies that drastically underestimated the numbers of intra-European migrants who would come. The metropolitan political and journalistic classes have caught up with the shift in popular sentiment as the tolerant attitude of Britons towards foreign settlers has become strained and the realisation has come that migration is not just about benefits to British business.

Initially Collier explains the drivers of the phenomenon of migration and its rate: the presence in the attracting state of capital, rule of law, stable institutions, social norms, effective organisations like companies, and an income gap between countries across which people flow. Collier explains the role of diaspora communities in host countries in easing migration much as a rolling snowball accumulates mass and speeds up. Collier’s judgment is that, “for the foreseeable future, international migration will not reach equilibrium: we have been observing the beginnings of disequilibrium of epic proportions” between developed and developing countries (his emphasis).

Assimilation or separation

Moving to the question of “welcome or resentment?” in host societies, Collier examines the effects on mutual trust and co-operation, reciprocal regard and equity (social fairness), via a set of evidence-backed logic puzzles and models. He shows, for instance, how opposing sets of policies (integrationist, tending towards assimilation as seen in Britain, and multicultural, tending towards separation between host and migrant, as seen in France) alter the rate at which migrants can be absorbed into host communities if the rate of migration is allowed to accelerate (as is happening across the globalised, free trade world). Bluntly put, integrationist policies raise it; multicultural policies lower it”. “You may be starting to see the scope for policy blunders”, he notes. If a country sets out not to assimilate foreigners, they never do become assimilated.

Economic pros and cons

What are the economic pros and cons of migration? Collier doesn’t let-up on hard-hitting facts or conclusions. Although the poorest indigenous workers are worse-off in a wages race to the bottom, most have benefitted from migration. The same has been true across Europe. But the causal mechanisms are uncertain: is it because intra-European migration is generally skilled, sparking co-operation rather than competition, and other migration (mainly African and Sub-Continental, overwhelmingly unskilled) is comparatively smaller? Migrants “increase the pressure on housing stock” and decrease the social mobility of indigenous workers, but the “one clear long-term effect is that there is less open space per person”.

Collier answers his questions as he goes along. Are immigrants needed to offset an aging population? Not really: the “mere fact that a society is aging is not reason to need extra workers”. Are immigrants needed to fill skill shortages? In the short-term, yes, but in the longer, any society can adapt and indeed ought to, given a stock of chronically-unemployed people. Does immigration induce emigration? Potentially.

Some of Collier’s models are hard to follow: his technical economic analysis of the combined effects of social and economic consequences, for instance, in “the political economy of panic”. But even skimming over the graphs and logic-games Collier’s insights shine through: his point here is that the conflation of economic and social evaluations of migration tend to muddy the water.

The migrants: gain and loss

What of the benefits and losses to migrants themselves? Obviously migrants are the biggest winners from migration: they gain improved incomes, often (but not always) improved quality of life in housing, welfare, public services, and so on. Classically, economic migrants have moved for a limited time in order to save resources to return to a better life at home, and they may remit cash in the interim. In economic terms, the migrant individually “generates a massive windfall gain resulting from a productivity gap, and this gain is captured by migrants”.

The economic incentives to migration can be reduced by raising the initial travel and other one-way costs of migration, and by toughening legal restrictions on entry. Collier finds that diasporas reduce these costs via provision of services and aiding illegal migration, causing the annual flow of migrants to accelerate. Yet each additional migrant increases native resentment and causes competition between migrants, generating what Collier calls “the paradox of migration”. The productivity gains of migration impact individually, and to maintain them, successful migrants “collectively have an interest in precisely what individually is most detrimental: entry barriers.”

Meanwhile, back in the home country…

What of those left behind? Collier cites these as his key reason for studying migration. From a political perspective, it is potentially disastrous for a poor country to lose its educated and talented people. It certainly harms the developing economy, and remittances provide a relatively low benefit, which Collier nevertheless labels a “lifeline”, but far too little work has been done to tell whether in fact a brain drain prompts political reform at home.

On the other hand returning migrants tend to bring with them the political attitudes of their adoptive nations, which is good for developing countries. Overall, “in the typical country of the bottom billion [poorest people globally, earning less than a dollar a day]”, migration “depletes the overall stock of educated people” but “enables the society to draw upon foreign-educated students and other former migrants for its top public positions” when they return, and this “significantly improves the quality of governance”.  

Is nationality obsolete? 

So what does Collier think should be done about migration? He cites nationality as just one of many identities that people possess, including family, clan, religion and profession. Nations are fundamentally cultural artifices forged from shared language, ethnic and religious roots. Collier is ambivalent towards nations, which he calls “overwhelmingly the most important institutions for taxation” as a “strong common identity” is essential for legitimising fiscal redistribution and facilitating collective action. One of main problems in Africa is the mismatch between identities and collective organisation: the former are based on colonial planning, the latter the family, clan or tribe where identities shape action.

Collier recognises that migration “does not make nations obsolete” but,

[T]he continued acceleration of migration in conjunction with a policy of multiculturalism might potentially threaten their viability. Absorption has proved more difficult that anticipated. The alternative of continued cultural separation works well enough when judged by the minimalist hurdle of the preservation of social peace between groups but may not work on the more pertinent hurdles of the preservation of cooperation and redistribution within them. Such evidence as we have is that continually increasing diversity could at some point put these critical achievements of modern societies at risk.

To make migration policies “fit for purpose”, Collier suggests focussing not on the question whether migration is good or bad per se, but the effects of migration at the margin, or as rates of migration fluctuate. Collier predicts, intuitively, that accelerating migration rates are offset by tightening criteria of eligibility and a tipping-point when the diaspora overseas and depopulation in the sending country grow too large.

Collier’s policy package includes ceilings on annual rates of migration; the selection of migrants, considering the applicant’s household status, education, employability, cultural origins and vulnerability; assimilation and integration; and the legalization of illegal migrants. All in, a cautious and moderate approach.

In Britain, the problem, as the recent figures show, is with migration from within the EU. Without renegotiating the very agreements on which EU membership is founded, it is hard to see what British governments can do about it. Exodus should help concentrate policymakers and commentators from on all sides on what economic migration should be about.  

Peter Smith is a lawyer in London. He has previously worked for a Conservative Member of Parliament, and has written for MercatorNet, The Belltowers and The Commentator.

Peter Smith is a lawyer who works in central London. He has previously worked in Parliament, for Edward Leigh MP.