Britons favor ‘controlled openness’ over closed door as immigration soars

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Britons favor ‘controlled openness’ over closed door as immigration soars

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High immigration rates motivated many Britons to favor leaving the European Union in 2016. But migrant numbers have risen to record heights since then, and the public seems largely unconcerned, instead happy with “controlled openness.”

Anti-immigration hard-liners in the party are pressing Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to fight next year’s election on a pledge to cut net migration, which hit an all-time high of 606,000 last year. But Mr. Sunak faces a dilemma: The vote will likely turn largely on the performance of social services, which depend on migrant labor.

The government responded in May to the release of last year’s migration data by announcing limited visa restrictions on international students, whose numbers have surged in response to the government’s own policy to make U.K. universities more attractive to non-EU students after Brexit. More than 700,000 international students are currently in the U.K.

But the new policy, which only applies to graduate students bringing dependents, is unlikely to bend the curve by itself or satisfy the Conservative hard-liners who fret that voters will punish them for allowing in too many foreigners.

That immigration remains so politically thorny for Conservatives is largely a problem of their own making, says Rob McNeil, deputy director of Oxford University’s Migration Observatory. “The challenge we’ve got is that for over a decade, this idea has been put forward that there’s a correct number we should be hitting,” he says, which “massively oversimplifies the issue.”

The fixation with a net migration target dates back to 2010, when David Cameron, then the leader of the Conservative Party, sought to detoxify the debate over migration by imposing “balanced levels” of net migration, which he proposed to hold to tens of thousands a year.

That proved impossible to achieve, but the idea of a target persists in Tory ranks.

Keen on immigrants, but not on immigration

Mr. Sunak is not the first Conservative leader to find himself in this bind: Since 2010, the center-right party has won four successive elections on a platform of cutting immigration, only to see numbers rise. Mr. Sunak has largely stuck to the catechism.

“Numbers are too high. It’s as simple as that, and I want to bring them down,” Mr. Sunak said in a TV interview in May.

The prime minister has separately pledged to tackle an increase in asylum-seekers crossing the English Channel in small boats from France, by passing a new law that will prevent them from claiming asylum if they arrive illegally. The public has less sympathy for migrants who come without authorization – more than 45,000 of them arrived last year – than those who seek refuge with prior approval, such as Ukrainians.

Paradoxically, although a significant number of voters, including a majority of Conservatives, think migration should come down and fault the government for not doing enough to control it, polling finds strong public support for migrants who work in the National Health Service, as well as for those who come to pick fruit and fill other job vacancies. Students, scientists, and bankers are also welcome.

“Britons may not much like immigration, but they are keen on immigrants,” an Economist columnist noted recently.

When it comes to foreign students, who pay higher tuition fees than U.K. residents, views are highly favorable, says Lord Karan Bilimoria, the chancellor of the University of Birmingham and the president of the U.K. Council for International Student Affairs. He says that in targeting students as a way to cut net migration the government has put ideology before public opinion.

“The public is totally for international students. They don’t see international students as immigrants,” says Lord Bilimoria, an Indian-born entrepreneur. He argues that students shouldn’t even be counted in net migration data, since most return home eventually.

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One of those students is Kennedy Onaiwu, a Nigerian student who enrolled last year at the University of Hertfordshire for a master’s degree in environmental management. After he graduates in September, he will be eligible for a two-year work visa, which is a major draw for students like him.

“They come and spend in this economy,” says Mr. Onaiwu, referring to foreign students’ tuition fees and living expenses. “You can’t expect them to go back … empty-handed.” 

Still, Mr. Onaiwu can count himself fortunate in his timing. Last year, he married a fellow Nigerian who recently moved to join him here. As his dependent, she is also eligible to work in the U.K. for the next two years. 

Now that pathway has been closed. 

That will be a blow to British universities. At the University of Hertfordshire, where Mr Onaiwu studied, international students make up more than 40% of the student body and enhance the experience for everyone, says Quintin McKellar, the university’s vice chancellor.

In an emailed statement, Professor McKellar says that demand from overseas for places next year remains strong despite the new visa rules, but he feels it was “short-sighted and detrimental” to put up such barriers. “We should be celebrating that so many international students want to study in the UK and actively welcoming them and the many benefits they bring – not pushing them towards other countries,” he argues.

Toward “controlled openness”

Anti-immigration groups say students who bring their families put additional pressure on schools, housing, and other public services. But migrants are more likely to be working in hospitals and care homes than using them: The number of work visas issued for these sectors almost tripled to 211,000 in the year to March 2023.

Take Mr. Onaiwu: He’s working in the care sector while he waits to graduate. His wife, a nurse, is preparing to take an exam that would allow her to work for the National Health Service. 

He says the new policy on dependents will make some Nigerians think twice about the U.K. “This is not the best move. It’s actually discrimination. You can’t separate families … just because you want to regulate your [immigration] system,” he says. 

Analysts say net migration to the U.K. has likely already peaked and will be falling by next year. Whether it will matter much to voters is unclear, says Paul Taggart, a professor of politics at the University of Sussex who studies populism. As an issue, though, “it’s always bubbling under and it can come back,” he says.

Mr. Sunak may focus on reducing illegal boat crossings in order to distract attention from overall migration numbers and his government’s own post-Brexit immigration policy, which has been more liberal than some had expected. Yet to some extent, his hands are tied for a simple reason of migration math, says Professor Taggart.

Net migration – the number of arrivals minus the number of departures – is decided as much by the latter as the former, and “you can’t stop people leaving the country,” he points out.

The government is still trapped in its pursuit of a net migration target, but Brexit has nonetheless achieved what few at the time predicted – breaking a pattern by which rising levels of migration fuel rising anti-migrant attitudes. Net migration is higher than ever. But “we’re not seeing a massive public freak out about this,” says Mr. McNeil of Oxford University. 

For voters who wanted an end to free movement from the EU, Brexit has delivered. “That has been cathartic,” says Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, a think tank focused on immigration issues. “There is significant growth in confidence in how we handle migration.”

That confidence, he adds, undergirds a new political reality for migrants. “There’s a sign of consensus for what you might call controlled openness,” he says. 

Editor’s note: The original story misstated the effect of visa restrictions on the University of Hertfordshire.


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