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Immigration Control Would Require Perfect Knowledge of Inherently Unpredictable Things

Interview with Don Flynn
Copyright: Anton Chalakov

Population Europe: What do you consider the most pressing issue in Migration politics that the EU has to resolve right now?

Don Flynn: I think it is the domination of the member states, who are pulling back on the issue. When the experts of the European Union sit down and consider the issue they know there have to be changes. They know by and large it has to be planning relatively porous borders, which people can cross fairly freely. And the economic dynamism and the future of Europe depend on being able to maintain that. But then they keep coming back and sitting down with member states who are always fighting their own corners and their own interests, and that has resulted in a deadlock, where we have been for quite a number of years now.

PE: Are the problems really down to legislation, or rather to the very different ways that things are handled on the ground. For example how you treat people that ask for asylum seems to be very different depending where you arrive

DF: I suppose well before legislation and way before many other things there is the question of public opinion. For over fifty years now, Europe has been integrating itself into global processes and international supply chains, but the public opinion is still not educated about how that happens. People still feel that their real lives are lived behind national barriers and the business of actually crossing a frontier is quite a scary and unusual one. And the politicians don’t help: Even though many of their decisions have been responsible for globalization and pushing borders back all the time they have not gone back to the voters and said, well this is the consequence of the type of economy we have created over the years.

PE: Does it still make sense to differentiate between refugees or asylum seekers and other migrants and have all these different systems for each group in place, or could you see any alternative?

DF: In an ideal world, where it is accepted and normal for people to cross frontiers,  I would say that probably the majority of people that now are asylum seekers would find that they could move for other reasons, because they are dentists, or engineers, or nurses or whatever they are. The only people who would be left behind, and who would need the category of refugees, would be people who – possibly because of the extent of the trauma they experienced – would not be economically active. So you would still need a humanitarian category.

PE: It seems that we are putting a lot of money in regulation-systems that are highly dysfunctional, which we would not allow in many other political areas. Why is it possible in the field of migration?

DF: Many politicians I talk to in Britain are ready to believe migration is happening because somebody made a mistake. That five or ten years ago a politician, a minister took his eye of the ball and signed something to do with the European Union very often, and suddenly these immigrants started flooding across the border. And if only they had been paying proper attention it would never have happened. And when that is your diagnosis of the problem, than the solution is just finding the right legislation. Or in the UK it is often a technocratic thing: Some sort of computer scanner, some sort of face recognition they use in airports and you invest a lot of money there, and at some point or another we will be able to announce that we now have completely secured the borders. There are no more illegal immigrants who are going to come here. Of course this never happens and it never happened in history. The notion of sealing boarders is actually a relatively new thing, a 20thcentury thing. In the 19th century countries routinely regarded their borders as completely porous, they would look for others ways to identify “dangerous elements”. The notion that you could police and just keep people out never occurred to anyone before.

PE: Do you see any other way of controlling immigration?

DF: Immigration control would require perfect knowledge of two inherently unpredictable things: First the behaviour of human beings themselves, second the market. No one truly knows what level of demand there is for what particular type of jobs, how much will be paid, whether there is an alternative to recruit a British national for that – and that makes the whole system completely unpredictable, right down the line.

PE: Do you know whether irregular immigrants always have a clear idea where they want to go to?

DF: Some surely do: I’ve seen a documentary about a group of Punjabis in Vienna who came via Russia, that was a few years ago, across the Ukraine into Austria and then they waited around and there was no doubt these Punjabis wanted to come to London, even to a particular part, to West-London where they’ve got friends, relatives, cousins. But I have also met young men from Africa who had a very hazy understanding of the geography of Europe, they have heard of London and of Paris and maybe where they are in relation to each other, but they have become dependant on the smugglers who say: at the moment we cant take you in that direction because of the border control, but there is a route over the Pyrenees we can get you into Spain or France or whatever – and they pick it up as they go along. It is a long process for them, they are on the road for years and during that time they hear the experiences of other people and they get a sense of where their ultimate destination might be.

PE: But probably no one ever wants to got to a tiny village, so there are clearly centres of immigration across Europe?

DF: A British think tank of socio-economic research did a study about where migrants went to, on the basis of where people received their first national insurance number, when they got their first job. That was interesting because for the first time you could actually pin it down to a precise location. And they cross-compared this with statistics how the job-market was in certain areas and they found out they are very closely honed in on it. They don’t just go to a country, they go to a country where they know there is labour demand. And that was important because they were trying to calculate what the downward pressure is on wage-rates for unskilled migrants coming into the country. And they came to the conclusion it was a lot less then you would expect because of this highly selective going to areas were the demand is. So they were probably preventing wage growth, but they were not driving down wage rates.

PE: So you consider successful immigration mainly a question of the right economic circumstances?

DF: I give you an example of my hometown, Liverpool: There has never been a problem with migrants, because everybody has been leaving the city for decades. But now they had a good decade, there was a lot of investments in the centre of the city and there is a second phase of investment taking place round there. Now people in local planning say one of the big problems is that the immigrants don’t want to come to Liverpool. Manchester is just 50 Miles down the road and 70% of migrants in the Northwest of England go to Manchester. So Liverpool has to compete and try to persuade these immigrants to come. The economy would boom much faster and there would be more jobs for everybody, if only we could persuade more of these migrants to come here.

PE: How exactly do migrants boost local economies?

DF: I give you another example, from a small town just outside of Norfolk. They had a conference on local immigration because it is one of these agricultural areas where farms were expanding and signing contracts with the supermarkets. Suddenly they had the opportunity to produce a lot more local product but no labour force to do it. So they started to bring in lots of Polish and Slovaks to the area and then the local people were saying, “we can’t get any appointment at the doctors any more, there are always queues to see the GP. And the schools, they got a lot more kids speaking foreign languages”. And everybody who was listening was saying, “yes that is certainly true, but hang on for a moment, before the immigrants came we were fighting with central government, because they wanted to close down our schools.” The problem is, you hear these views that immigrants actually benefit a community expressed all the time on local conferences, but how do you get them out of these little conferences into the media and the wider public?

PE: What is your best-case scenario for this whole topic in five years time?

DF: It’s going to continue to be very messy, I am not looking for any solutions from national governments. My hope is that the anti-immigrant stance is becoming so ridiculous that at last we are going to get a backlash from the liberals. At least in Britain, where the UKIPs argumentation is becoming more and more absurd, the liberals are beginning to put their foot down and saying “this is insane, if you expect me to go through my life with that level of suspicion against people, just because I hear a foreign language on a bus, I am not going to do this”.

And I hope that we will see a lot more of this. It will be young people in particular, and it will play in with other governmental issues like austerity, exploitation and trafficking and things like that. And the conclusion that people will increasingly come to is that immigration will take place, nothing we can do about that, we should not even try and stop it. What we should do is preventing the bad outcomes, the fact that people are exploited, and that would be a good immigration policy.

Interview: Sigrun Matthiesen for Population Europe

Don Flynn is Chair of the Executive Committee of PICUM - the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants and Director of the Migrants Rights Network, London. He was one of the panellists at the Population Europe Event “The stranger among us. Immigration policies and social cohesion in Europe.”