Migration, Uncertainty and the European Union

With the EU Referendum looming, Associate Professor of Demography and European Demographer of the Year 2015, Dr Jakub Bijak, examines a topic rarely out of the news: migration.

Associate Professor of Demography University of Southampton Jakub Bijak

Migration is one of the key themes of the referendum on the continuing UK membership in the European Union. The referendum will happen at a time of high migration pressures: the unprecedented numbers of migrants coming to the UK each year, coupled with the refugee and migrant crisis faced by the whole EU. The latter is linked to the war in Syria and elsewhere, to illegal migration from various countries, and to challenges posed by human smuggling. As a result, the public debate focuses largely on the crisis and on negative aspects of migration.

Migration is very volatile and hardly predictable. To put the current flows into perspective, as recently as around 30 years ago – one generation – more people were leaving the UK than coming into the country. At the time, the official projections assumed that this negative migration balance would continue for the foreseeable future. As it happens, these assumptions were completely wrong. Similarly, the current high inflows will almost surely not continue forever – and in some 30 years’ time the next generation may look at them with nostalgia for a period of economic prosperity attracting many migrants into the country.

Migration flows have their own dynamics, which will remain largely unaffected by the referendum outcome. The migration drivers will not disappear overnight: the presence of migrant networks in the UK, and the many institutions relying on migrant labour, are powerful mechanisms fuelling future migrant flows. Increasing barriers to legal migration may have some perverse effects, turning some of the short-term and circulatory movements into long-term, often illegal flows, as indeed has recently been the case in the United States.

That migration is fully controllable is a comfortable illusion, which may well win the ‘Exit’ vote in the referendum. Still, this mirage of control will not change the fundamentals: a complex web of interrelated factors influencing population flows into and out of the UK. The migration challenges will remain the same; only that this time the UK will either need to negotiate some agreement with the rest of the EU – back to square one – or face these challenges alone.

Solutions to uncertain pressures of migration involve creating contingency plans and sharing risk amongst a wider group of countries. This is easier done with pooled resources, but at the EU level this would require political will and solidarity amongst the member states. In the era of globalisation, multi-dimensional interdependencies between states and various non-state actors, including corporations with budgets dwarfing those of some countries, full sovereignty of nation states is a red herring.

The EU needs reform. The migrant crisis laid bare the dysfunctionality of the asylum system based on the Dublin regulations. Despite the obvious benefits of a free movement of workers in the EU, migration generates negative pressure on the wages and employment prospects of the local labour force at the bottom of job hierarchy, especially in the short term. There are also challenges with security, law enforcement, integration, and participation of migrants in the welfare state.

Still, these are the challenges to be addressed – and a reformed EU would be better positioned to address many of them than any single member state on its own. Given the volatility of migration, the stakes are too high to base the decision just on the present crisis, with disregard for the economic and political potential of a multinational block of countries in mitigating similar risks in the future. The strength in numbers relates not only to the economies of scale, but also to building resilience.

Regardless of the referendum outcome, society would benefit from an informed and rational debate on migration. Migration contributes to the economy, science, culture, and many other areas of social life. Still, it is not black or white, not universally beneficial – or harmful – and the debate needs to reflect its full complexity. Emotions may sway the referendum result, but ultimately the British society will have to live with the aftermath of whatever decision it makes, for the generations to come.

Dr Jakub Bijak is an Associate Professor in Demography in the Department of Social Statistics and Demography (University of Southampton), a recipient of the Allianz European Demographer Award (2015) and the Jerzy Z Holzer Medal (2007). As a statistical demographer, he works on demographic uncertainty, modelling and forecasting of migration and population processes, and demography of conflict and violence. His key publication is Forecasting International Migration in Europe: A Bayesian View (2010).

This blog was originally published as part of PublicPolicy@Southampton’s blog series Views on Europe.

Leave a Reply