In an increasingly interdependent world UK public policy should acknowledge international mobility and diversity as a permanent social trend
Many people who’ve lived in Britain all their lives dream of winning the National Lottery and being able to move away to some sun-kissed paradise overseas. Brits routinely holiday abroad and migration, whether short-term or long-term, is common.
Most of us, however, continue to live in a country where we can enjoy beautiful countryside and coastline, historic buildings, a varied arts and culture scene, and a tradition of volunteering and community support groups. The population of the UK is generally tolerant and easy-going, happy to share these good things with people from other countries. That said, the media keeps telling us that since Brexit there has been growing xenophobia and resentment towards foreign nationals in Britain.
Yet in spite of social and political reserve in some quarters towards foreigners, many people do want to come and live here. The Migration Statistics Quarterly Report (MSQR) of the Office of National Statistics (ONS) notes that in the year ending June 2017 immigration to the UK was 572,000 (down 80,000 since June 2016) and emigration was 342,000 (up 26,000). To quote the report: “overall, more people are still coming to live in the UK than are leaving and therefore net migration is adding to the UK population.”
So, what really attracts them to the UK?
In their recent study, Buying into Myths: Free Movement of People and Immigration 2016, Eiko Thielemann and Daniel Schade have suggested that migration flows between EU countries including Britain have been largely the result of high levels of unemployment in southern Europe and poor labour market conditions in Eastern European countries. Unemployment rates in the UK have been low compared to such countries. And when you don’t have work, one obvious option is to move somewhere else to look for a job.
Vasileva first came to Britain from her native Bulgaria in June 2008 She’s now forty-something-years-old, is raising a family, and has lived in York for almost ten years. She has a permanent job as an office manager with an international training company. Vasileva says she enjoys the cosmopolitan feel of this country, the chance to share meals and conversation with people from all over the world. She loves the sense of community and support, and “people realising the value of these things.”
Something that native monolingual Brits find incredibly hard to understand is that many people come to study, live and work here simply because they know that the best way to learn a language is to come to the country where it is spoken. There is a global hunger for learning English, and with this there is often a natural curiosity to learn about the culture that lies behind the language. Take Céline, for instance. She’s a 32-year-old French teacher who has also lived in the north of England for just under ten years. “I love speaking English every day, and sharing my passion for languages with my students and the children in school.” She loves the kindness she has experienced here as well as the British sense of humour.
“I also appreciate the fact that you can travel easily from one place to another by just jumping in the car or on a train. In France, you have to travel a long way to see a change of scenery or region.”
Closely allied to learning English is the idea in many countries of the status attached to living and working in an English-speaking country such as Britain.
For some immigrants it is the liberal social culture of the UK that attracts them. This is especially true of people from countries with oppressive religious or strict social conventions. In an interview for an article in The Guardian in 2014, one anonymous 47-year-old woman from Turkey tells of how she came to Britain via France to escape the clutches of her dictatorial father back in Istanbul. “I did not come here for money or benefits; safety and freedom were my main concerns. I am forever grateful that I have had the opportunity to become a free citizen who is entitled to a normal life. Bringing up our children in a free country is priceless
“Many people, many reasons, “was Vasileva’s reaction to the question why she thought people wanted to come and live in the UK. She saw the main driver of immigration as aspirational. “Every individual will be different. But for most people it’s because they like to travel and want to advance themselves whether personally, professionally or financially.”
It might just be that free movement of people is a seismic social trend that increasingly goes beyond the power of democratic politics to stop. Migration on a large scale is now more possible than ever in our increasingly globalised world. International migration in search of a better life will continue to defy Canute-like attempts to turn back the tide.
* David Wilson is a York-based freelance writer and Liberal Democrat. He has been actively campaigning against Brexit since June 2016