Stratified rights in migration policy

Gareth Mulvey, Lord Kelvin Adam Smith Fellow in Social Sciences, University of Glasgow

The political discourse and Westminster policy about migration mirrors those around poverty issues in general regarding rights being stratified and state support being denied to increasing parts of the population. For people migrating to the UK there have long been a variety of visa types which have both different rights and different requirements attached to them. However, this has gradually become more explicit with, for example, some visa types having ‘right to reside’ tests applied to them, effectively removing the right to numerous benefits from many migrants regardless of what they pay in tax, and those in the asylum process being denied both sufficient state support and the right to work, which has long-term negative impacts.

The deserving and undeserving

Part of the rationale for this approach has been simple populism. However, there are other political reasons for this type of stratification. British politics and the accompanying public debate have re-introduced Victorian notions of deserving and undeserving poor. This is joined by restrictions on minority communities having the right to make claims of the British state, leading to a deeply regressive political framework into which migrants must both navigate and live. While the broader welfare climate and its focus on ‘hard working families’, ‘doing the right thing’ is best addressed by others, it does link to the politics of migration. Migration policy is increasingly viewed in relation to wanted and unwanted migrants. Wealthy migrants and those working for large multi-national corporations have few problems in entering the UK, whether through the GATT agreed inter-company transfers (23,000 people in 2011) or Tier 1 entrepreneurs visas (more than 2000 in 2012) they have few problems in terms of either access or, it goes without saying, making ends meet once here, already having a well-paid job and/or considerable resources. This leaves the unwanted side, unwanted in terms of both social class and region of origin facing the brunt of restrictive measures both in terms of getting into Britain (immigration policy) and what they can expect on arrival (immigrant policy).

Immigration status effects what support is available

Nevertheless, it is the lives of migrants already in the UK that is the issue of concern in this post. Successive UK Governments have viewed migrants as more or less productive units of labour rather than as people. Employers have been empowered to effectively proscribe many aspects of our immigration system through their influence on the issuance of many visas, while in-work poverty, low pay, zero-hours contracts and underemployment are then left for others to ‘deal with’. Thus we have a perverse system whereby employers have the right to employ migrant labour, with a ‘reserve army of labour’ in its hinterland, UK Governments opt-out of any European protections for those workers and alongside the much vaunted ‘most flexible labour market in Europe’. This leaves many experiencing severe financial difficulties, some of which are then mitigated by the Government then subsidising low wages in the form of benefits (itself now under focussed Government attack), but for an increasing section of the population, particularly migrants, that subsidy has been removed and so existing hardships are intensified. The Coalition Government argue that this approach is based on fairness and hint that such migrants can return to their country of origin if they are unhappy with this state of affairs. Ignoring the morality of subsidising low paying profitable employers from the

public purse, many migrants are not able to leave for a variety of reasons, some have established family lives here, had children and so forth. Many have also paid significant amounts of money into our tax system, and denying them social services on that basis goes against the contributory principle. Others still have fled despotic regimes and so have no option of return, yet ‘we’ appear to be accepting that poverty, and in some cases destitution, are reasonable results of their need to flee. Refugees have experienced discriminatory immigration regimes with; for example, support levels for those in the asylum system set at just 70% of income support with no other benefits allowed and the denial of the right to work, and yet they are then condemned for both relying on benefits and ‘taking our jobs’. On being recognised as refugees there is also deskilling from time denied the right to work, underemployment and racism alongside a scramble to find appropriate accommodation (almost all newly recognised refugees are made homeless and therefore temporarily housed).

This contradicts what we know about ‘good’ policy

A lot is now known about both what causes poverty (and how to fix it) and about many aspects of what constitutes ‘good’ policy-making. However, in relation to preventing poverty and to immigration and immigrant policy ‘we’ are failing to heed the lessons, be it the denial of the right to work for refugees, which leads to long-term difficulties in accessing the labour market; or EU citizens being underemployed so contributing less to society than they could. Many aspects of immigration policy are leading people into poverty, some as a consequence of that policy but also some such as the way refused asylum seekers are treated (many of whom overturn such refusals on appeal) where poverty is a deliberate tool of policy. The imperative of control within the Home Office who control all migration matters leads to other government departments and other levels of government picking up the substantial costs of those policies. At present reserved immigration policy is condemning large numbers of our population to penury. Add to this the much broader assault on the whole notion of the welfare state and poverty is an entirely predictable result, with impacts for the individuals involved, the communities they live in and for society more generally.

Dr Gareth Mulvey is based in the School of Social and Political Science, University of Glasgow


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