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The Windrush scandal and the need for a new ethical approach to migration

The Windrush scandal and the need for a new ethical approach to migration

Ben Ryan on how the Windrush deportations scandal highlights the UK’s problematic approach to migration and how this the time for reform.

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It’s quite something when the Guardian and the Daily Mail are united in outrage on the issue of migration. The scandal over the status, and in some cases deportation of the so–called Windrush generation, who came as children from the Commonwealth between 1948 and 1973, has caused an almost unparalleled level of consensus that the government has failed to take a just approach to a migration issue.

But it does also raise an interesting question: just why is it that so many people are outraged?

This is, after all, precisely the sort of temporary migration for labour followed by expulsion that so many claim to want. People were encouraged to come to fill a labour shortage at a particular moment in time, with the expectation being that they would not, in fact, settle here permanently.

Turning up in the middle of the night with a battering ram and taking someone without charge or adequate aid to an Immigration and Removal Centre for weeks at a time pending deportation is only (astonishingly) the usual procedure of the Home Office – who are regularly criticised for not being tough enough finding and removing illegal migrants. It is faced by thousands of migrants each year who are deemed to be here illegally.

The whole sorry incident reveals something important about the British political approach to migration. For decades the UK has been confused in its approach to how to deal with the questions of who should be allowed (or encouraged) to migrate to Britain, under what circumstances and with what demands for integration. The successfulness of dealing with migration has been primarily dealt with according to two, at least potentially, incompatible criteria.

On the one hand there has been a focus which has made migration all about the economic benefit. So, the Windrush was encouraged precisely because of a post–war labour market shortage that needed to be filled to keep the economy on track. The current system for assessing non–EU migrants to the UK prioritises particular high–value jobs that are deemed to be of need to the economy. During the Brexit referendum various bodies promoted videos and articles that demonstrated the economic value of immigration to the UK economy, while others emphasised the costs (generally in terms of strain on public services). This calculation is all about the UK as an economic machine, in which migrants are nothing more than a resource to be employed, and migration policy is a success if the economic benefits outweigh the costs.

On the other hand the focus has been on integration. Part of the outrage over the Windrush case is precisely because these people are widely considered to be British – integrated British citizens who have contributed to the state, paid taxes etc. and are due the protection of the state. In the same way policies that demand that migrants should learn English, have paid national insurance for a certain number of years before being allowed to claim benefits, or calls for oaths of allegiance, all have at their heart a demand that migrants become integrated (or assimilated) into the British nation. Success is here evaluated not economically, but by the extent to which migration is accomplished without undermining (or even better, by augmenting) the British nation.

What ought to be clear, but apparently is not, is that those two criteria are not the same thing. Migration cannot easily be about both maximizing economics and maximizing social cohesion. The means to achieve one are not necessarily compatible with the other. British policies have oscillated unhelpfully between the two, leading precisely to situations like the mess which is now unfolding.

There is a potential route forwards on this thorny issue, and Brexit, here (if maybe only in this one field) provides an enormous opportunity. For the first time in a long time the UK will need to come up with a new set of policies on migration. It is a once in a generation chance for a bold government to take a stance and deliver a consistent ethical approach to how it wants migration to look in the coming years.

It was with this opportunity in mind that we are this week publishing Fortress Britain: Ethical Approaches to Immigration Policy for a Post–Brexit Britain (JKP 2018). This is a collection of essays from academics in the field answering the question what could a new approach to migration look like? Contributions range in terms of theme, from economic migrants to asylum seekers, and in terms of the theological and political background. Each seeks to provide a meaningful way forwards that will stand the UK on a firmer ethical footing for the future.

Fortress Britain: Ethical Approaches to Immigration Policy for a Post–Brexit Britain (JKP 2018) is launched on Thursday and is available to buy here.


Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan is deputy CEO and executive director for Engagement and Strategic Development at Medaille Trust, and formerly worked in policy for the CofE and as head of research at Theos.

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Posted 17 April 2018

Brexit, Immigration, Politics


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