The predictions for 2016 suggest a continuation of humanitarian crisis, politicised statistics and poorly-conceived policy responses
Migration has remained a headline issue throughout 2015. Next year, with an impending EU referendum, this is unlikely to change. So what aspects of migration can we expect to make the news in 2016?
The humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean will continue, with loss of life and appalling reception facilities in southern and eastern Europe. While the number of boat people has dropped a little this winter, when spring arrives numbers are likely to increase.
A move towards peace in Syria and Iraq may cause numbers to fall, although it is important to remember that the desperate conditions faced by these refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan – countries of first asylum – are a contributing factor in the decision to flee to Europe.
Italy, Greece, Hungary and Germany are bearing much of the responsibility for supporting refugees. While there are moves to resettle 160,000 people in need of refugee protection from Italy and Greece to other EU countries, the number of people moved so far is tiny. The UK has opted out of this programme.
We can also expect more closed borders within the EU’s Schengen zone and more border fences. There is unlikely to be much change in the situation in Calais and other channel ports. Overall, there are few hopeful indicators of greater European cooperation on asylum and migration.
In the UK, it is unlikely that there will be many changes to the numbers and types of people entering and leaving the UK. Events outside the UK may cause asylum numbers to increase a little, but it is important to remember that asylum-seekers only make up a tiny proportion of those entering the UK – 29,000 in the year to September 2015, compared with 168,000 work visas and 214,000 study visas issued over the same period.
The quarterly immigration statistics will still be their ritual of claim and counter-claim, and the government will still be far from its target to reduce net migration – immigration minus emigration – to the tens of thousands. With George Osborne in the ascendancy, there is some suggestion that international students from outside the EU will be removed from the net migration target. This makes sense as most of them leave anyway, and present policies put this valuable export market at risk.
David Cameron will continue to push for EU reforms, including the restrictions on in-work benefits for EU migrants. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, has indicated a February deadline for this negotiations. It is uncertain whether a face-saving solution can be negotiated by Cameron. Whatever the outcome of talks with Brussels, migration will be exploited mercilessly by those who want Brexit, including a declining and perhaps more desperate UKIP.
Given this backdrop, it is unlikely that immigration will drop as an issue of public concern. Ipsos MORI’s monthly tracker recorded a record 49 per cent of people citing this issue as the most important issue facing Britain.
Negative public opinion risks ill-considered political responses, designed to sound tough, but destined to fail, thus further damaging public trust in the ability of politicians to manage migration. This vicious circle has characterised the politics of migration over the last 20 years, under Labour, the coalition and the Tories.
It is certainly reflected in the current Immigration Bill. Many of its clauses focus on clamping down on illegal working, and obliging landlords to make repeat checks on tenants. But many of these enforcement measures assume a well-resourced Home Office. In reality the Home Office has seen large cuts to its budget. Without funding, the enforcement clauses risk being tough talk that is designed to fail.
The Immigration Bill also contains some nasty and little publicised clauses that extend ‘deport first, appeal later’ procedures to all human rights cases, not just those of foreign national prisoners. This could put victims of human trafficking at risk of removal. The Bill also aims to remove support from refused asylum-seekers with children, putting local authority social workers, with duties towards child protection in a difficult situation.
The predictions for 2016 suggest a continuation of humanitarian crisis, politicised statistics and poorly-conceived policy responses. But there will be good news. The Syrian evacuation from the Middle East will continue and by all accounts these refugees are receiving a warm welcome.
Migrants and refugees will continue to arrive and leave, and continue to contribute to the economic and social life of this country, just as they have always done so. These everyday stories of nurses, musicians, professors, production line workers, and our friends and neighbours rarely make the news.
Jill Rutter is a contributing editor to Left Foot ForwardLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.