At this year’s How The Light Gets In philosophy festival in Hay on Wye, I spoke at two events, one on drugs policy and another on immigration. Several people have asked for my speech on immigration. The full text is below.

The  context – concerns about immigration and the EU Referendum vote

Tonight, in a few hours, the results of the EU elections will be announced.

The EU referendum result which should have meant the 2014 elections were the last ones the UK was involved in has not resulted-  yet – in an exit from the EU, so we had to contest candidates on Thursday, even though at the time I started writing this speech, it was possible we would leave without any sort of deal, before the MEPS can take their seats. That’s now been put back until Halloween but could still make the successful UK candidates redundant in a few months’ time, though I will be doing my best to keep them in post for five years.

That referendum result and these elections are directly and integrally linked to discussions and concerns and debates about immigration. Leaving the EU – if we do so – will have profound and long-lasting consequences for immigration of virtually all kinds. Will the new systems meet anyone’s wishes – those who wanted more controls on immigration; and those who see migration as a positive thing and the Free Movement of the Single Market specifically as a good thing? We shall see and I will return to this later.

In the next 20 or so minutes, with time for discussion afterwards, I’ll argue – perhaps unsurprisingly – that migration generally has the potential to be a force for good with many benefits, but that it is in several important ways a two-tier system. Two-tier in how we conceptualise it and how we believe we experience it and therefore how we argue about it.

I’ll argue that this is not a mere matter of debate. This gulf of understanding and experience has huge consequences for us all, wherever we stand on the philosophy of immigration and that many of these consequences are problematic.

I will propose that the solutions to these problems lie more in tackling underlying inequalities – both intra- and international inequalities  – and in closing the gap between the two tiers of experiences of immigration, and less in lecturing people with whom we do not agree that they are wrong and we are right.

However, I will also propose that although I think many of us who are either pro-migration or not opposed to it as a thing have tried to change the minds of others in ineffective ways, that change of national mind-set does have to happen and that it needs to happen through honesty and a thorough national debate.

First – who moves and why?

Probably everyone in this room has done so, either temporarily or semi-permanently, for work purposes mostly! But probably most of us were not forced to and we probably had relatively few difficulties doing so.

However, war, climate change and extreme poverty force many millions of people to migrate each year. Family members try to join relatives. People who are not the world’s poorest nevertheless want to move if they believe that they can achieve a better life for their families by taking a job in another country and sending as much of their salary home as possible.

A few figures – international migration (data published last year; figures up to 2017)

The number of international migrants worldwide overall has grown at between 2 and 3% per year since the turn of the millennium, reaching 258 million in 2017, up from 173 million in 2000.

Where are these people? Well, mostly in high-income countries, who host almost two thirds of all international migrants. Thirty-six per cent – or 92 million – in middle- or low-income countries, and of these, 81 million in middle-income countries and 11 million in low-income countries.

Most of the world’s migrants live in a relatively small number of countries. In 2017, more than half were living in just ten countries or areas. The largest number of international migrants resided in the United States of America: 50 million, that’s 19%. Saudi Arabia, Germany and the Russian Federation hosted the second, third and fourth largest numbers of migrants worldwide (around 12 million each), followed by the United Kingdom (nearly 9 million), and the United Arab Emirates (8 million). Of the twenty largest countries of destination of international migrants worldwide, there are nine in Asia, seven in Europe, two in Northern America, and one each in Africa and Oceania.

Of 258 million international migrants worldwide, 106 million were born in Asia, 61 million born in Europe, the second largest region of origin, followed by Latin America and the Caribbean (38 million), and Africa (36 million). Relatively few migrants were born in Northern America (4 million) or Oceania (2 million). migrants from Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean and Oceania were overrepresented compared to their relative share of the world’s population, while international migrants from Asia, Northern America and Africa were underrepresented.

Forced migration – a different picture within that broad picture

Most people who move are not forced to. However, the number who are forced to migrate is growing.

By the end of 2016, around 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced around the world – that’s 26.5%, just over a quarter. Of these 68.5 million people, 40 million are internally displaced, forced to leave their homes but unable to leave their countries, because of border controls or sites of conflict or other reasons. Nearly 26 million are refugees, that’s 10.1% of all international migrants. That includes the 5.4 million registered by the UN who live within the Palestinian Territories. The other top three sources are Syria – over 5million – Afghanistan – 2.6 million – and South Sudan – 2.4 million.

The developing regions hosted 82.5 per cent of the world’s refugees and asylum seekers. In 2016, Turkey recorded the largest refugee population, with approximately 3.1 million refugees and asylum seekers, up from the year 2000 when it hosted just over 3,000 refugees. In 2016, the second largest country of asylum was Jordan, hosting around 2.9 million refugees, followed by the Palestinian Territories (2.2 million), Lebanon (1.6) and Pakistan (1.4 million). Germany (1.3 million) and Uganda (1.2 million) also hosted more than one million refugees and asylum seekers in 2016. Given that a large majority of refugees is hosted by developing countries, and that many refugees reside in countries of first asylum for over a decade, there is an urgent need for sharing the responsibility of hosting and caring for refugees more equitably.  One of the last acts of international diplomacy by the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, was to start the process of the UN Global Compacts on Migration and Refugees which are attempting to do this, agreed by almost all the countries of the world last year.

There are around 3.2 million stateless persons.

Millions were newly displaced during each of the last few years, fleeing war, violence and persecution in countries including in addition to those already mentioned, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Iraq, Myanmar. At the same time, protracted crises remained entrenched. Refugees fled Afghanistan almost 40 years ago, but some two million are still hosted in the Islamic Republics of Iran and Pakistan, and hundreds of thousands more across the world.

During 2016, UNHCR made 162,500 resettlement submissions and some 125,600 refugees departed for resettlement. The Global Compact on Refugees aims to increase this substantially but it clearly has a very long way to go.

So, people move. They are mostly not forced. Is that a good thing? For the sharing of ideas, of skills, of experiences, the broadening of minds, yes, surely. For the providing of sanctuary, of course. But what about for social cohesion? For a sense of identity? For climate change? For family life? Here it is less clear that migration is simply good.

Migration from the EU and the impact of the impending departure from the EU

Almost from day one after the 2016 referendum I was lobbied by very well-organised, middle class EU27 citizens in Bristol West. They asked me, rightly, to do everything I could to protect their rights to remain and under the same conditions as under the Single Market Free Movement. I agreed with them and still do. I’ve written articles, supported and voted for Labour and other motions to protect them in Parliament.

However, I need to contrast this with virtually zero lobbying by the lower income mostly Eastern European EU migrants. Those who work in the care sector were represented in lobbies by their union. But, anecdotally the Eastern European migrants in Bristol West have simply, quietly, gone home. The university lecturers, the doctors, the TV producers, the environmental consultants, continue to lobby me and either stayed to fight or taken another equivalent job somewhere else in the EU, but made sure I knew about it.

This is another example of a two-tier conceptualisation and experience of migration. People who moved, as indeed my partner and I moved, within the EU with a set of expectations that the rights to free movement were for us, belonged to us and could provide us with new horizons in our careers and our lives, have fought strongly to stay. Those who moved because they could see that there were gaps in the UK labour market they could fill, or a possibility of a better life economically compared to the emerging economies of the newer member states, they seem to me to have treated the result of the referendum in a different way, at least that has been my experience as a very much lobbied MP on all matters EU. They have either stayed very quiet, or quietly left.

Some of us loved free movement and we voted to keep it and we loudly campaign to keep it because we experience it as a good thing.

What if we were to extend, rather than restrict or end free movement? What would that look like if it went worldwide?

What would a globally open borders system look like?

If we had fully open borders across the world we would still have a two-tier system, I believe. It would make it easier for a lot of us to move to places we might well have moved to anyway, we would continue to treat the world as a place open to us.

But there would still be forced migration and people making very dangerous journeys from regions of conflict or environmental degradation or extreme poverty. The inequalities would still exist – people who had economic means would find it easier to cope and get through the system than others, notwithstanding that bombing and armed conflict know no class boundaries.

What difference would open borders make to people forced to migrate? For the millions who remain displaced in their own countries because of the nature of conflict it would probably make some difference. Open borders would not mean fewer refugees, but would allow some to move further. It would continue to concentrate those refugees in the places they could get to, not always easily and rarely safely, but the first country which would take them in.

People not fleeing war or climate change would find it easier to move and to get residence, but opportunities would still be dependent on qualifications, skills and contacts, and on the local labour and housing markets of destination countries as well as the push factors of home countries.

As people moved, we would still have forms and processes, registration, de-registration and taxation. So even an open borders system would need rules and systems.

So what would a completely closed borders system look like?

We would still have migration and we would still have problems to solve – people would move from relatively less affluent parts to a more affluent part of the country. The two-tier system would still exist, as people reluctantly or eagerly packed their bags and moved hundreds of miles to where the jobs were, or to where they perceived they were, sometimes resulting in success, sometimes resulting in homelessness and suffering, but in both cases probably resulting in at least some experience of dislocation, of loss of identity, of changes to social cohesion.

We’d still have people trying to come here but they’d face hardship, as people in Calais or crossing the Mediterranean or languishing for years in refugee camps around the world do now but worse.

So both extremes have problems.

What about the impact on our identities of moving?

Anywheres and somewheres

As a result of economic migration within the country (with one temporary foray to another EU country and back), I am a UK resident who is most definitely an ‘anywhere’. My dad was also an anywhere, left India when he was 18 and never returned to live and travelled a lot with great relish. My mum, having married him, became an anywhere, moving around the country to follow his job. But she has noticeably become a ‘somewhere’ since divorcing him and nowadays she and my step-father are decidedly ‘somewheres’, unwilling to move ever. I therefore live with one of the key characteristics of an anywhere – missing my mum. But I retain the choice of moving around the country, and the ability to visit her.

This is a very different to the extreme version of migration separation – that of people who are or feel forced to migrate because of poverty, armed conflict or climate change, the reluctant anywheres. A woman who comes to London to work as a live-in nanny from a very poor country, leaving her own children behind. A construction worker from Kerala who goes to Qatar to build World Cup stadiums, in poor conditions with few rights but knowing that in a few years he will take home enough money to give his entire family a permanent economic boost. They don’t have my choices, they do experience the dislocation from home, the exclusion of being in the ‘out’ group, not the ‘in’ group. And in the end, my dad became a somewhere, missing his childhood home and his mum and towards the end of his life making attempts to move back there.

Economic impacts

So what about the economic consequences of migration? There has been a lot of talk of lowering wages and other economic costs of EU free movement, but The Migration Advisory Committee report published last Autumn showed that overall there is either no impact or a positive impact on local economies from EU migration, other than a small negative impact at the lower-paid jobs end.

For many of us, and I include myself, the key economic impact of migration is foreign remittances – cash transfers to relatives in countries of family origin. Not all remittances come from migrants but they happen as a result of migration, usually because our parents migrated and we retain our obligation to our families in the home countries. Remittances to low- and middle-income countries reached a record high in 2018, according to the World Bank. The Bank estimates that officially recorded annual remittance flows to low- and middle-income countries reached $529 billion in 2018, an increase of 9.6 percent over the previous record high of $483 billion in 2017.

Global remittances as a whole, which include flows to high-income countries, reached $689 billion in 2018, up from $633 billion in 2017.

India ranks number one in the world for receiving foreign remittances and has done for decades. We in the Indian diaspora send $79 billion to Indian relatives each year, followed by China ($67 billion), Mexico ($36 billion), the Philippines ($34 billion), and Egypt ($29 billion).

In 2019, remittance flows to low- and middle-income countries are expected to reach $550 billion, to become their largest source of external financing.

The global average cost of sending $200 remained high, at around 7 percent in the first quarter of 2019. Reducing remittance costs to 3 percent by 2030 is a global target under Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 10.7. Remittance costs across many African corridors and small islands in the Pacific remain above 10 percent.

Banks were the most expensive channels, charging an average fee of 11 percent in the first quarter of 2019. Post offices were the next most expensive, at over 7 percent.

On ways to lower remittance costs, Dilip Ratha, lead author of the Report, said, “Remittances are on track to become the largest source of external financing in developing countries. The high costs of money transfers reduce the benefits of migration. Renegotiating exclusive partnerships and letting new players operate through national post offices, banks, and telecommunications companies will increase competition and lower remittance prices.”

The Report notes that bank practices, such as the closure of the bank accounts of some remittance service providers, are driving up remittance costs.

The Report also reports progress toward the SDG target of reducing the recruitment costs paid by migrant workers:

“Millions of low-skilled migrant workers are vulnerable to recruitment malpractices, including exorbitant recruitment costs. We need to boost efforts to create jobs in developing countries and to monitor and reduce recruitment costs paid by these workers,” said Michal Rutkowski, Senior Director of the Social Protection and Jobs Global Practice at the World Bank. The World Bank and the International Labour Organization are collaborating to develop indicators for worker-paid recruitment costs, to support the SDG of promoting safe, orderly, and regular migration.

Within India some regions are more dependent than others on remittances. Many of you have perhaps visited Kerala, or one of the other Southern Indian States I am so partial to (I’m biased, they are my region of origin). Kerala, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu together received 58.7% of the total inward remittances in 2016-17, according to a survey by Reserve Bank of India. Kerala accounted for 19% of total inward remittances to India, accounting for about 30% of its GDP, followed by Maharashtra (16.7%), Karnataka (15%) and Tamil Nadu (8%).

Eight countries – United Arab Emirates, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, the United Kingdom and Malaysia – accounted for 82% of the total remittances received by India.

If these eight countries made it harder for people to come temporarily for work purposes, the economy of India would suffer. But notice which states are particularly high for receipts – they are the states which are doing better on the global economic and technological markets anyway, the ones which are noted for tourism, tech and digital hubs. Here is an example of how migration works on different levels to good and not so good effects – as people migrated around India and into the tech hubs in Bengalaru and Chennai, the two I know best and probably the two most of you know of best, property prices and the cost of living have rocketed. Those who work in or connected to the new industries can keep up, and many will migrate in, within and out of India to their own economic well-being. But ordinary Indians who do not work in the new economies, they struggle, they continue to be dependent on foreign remittances from relatives if they have them and if they do not, their struggles are greater. They are then often forced to consider sending one family member to another part of the country to seek work. Again, that two-tier set of experiences.

So is this economic migration wholly good, or are there aspects which are not so good? The sense of neighbourhoods and identity in the booming Indian cities I have mentioned, these neighbourhood identities fall apart as property developers increase their hold, cashing in on the economic booms which are partly stimulated by intra and international migration.

Is it good that people are split from their families? Is it good or bad that national and regional economies are so dependent on remittances? Is the long-term exacerbation of inequalities worth the overall economic growth?

What do people in the UK want?

After the referendum,  or even better, ten years before it when the Single Market was created, it might have been a good idea if governments led a national debate on migration, involved migrants, host communities, policy makers and private companies, talked about the employment and the housing and the impact on schools and how we could draw the benefits and share them more widely and how we could manage the practical challenges. But they didn’t.

So, a pair of organisations, British Futures and Hope Not Hate, did it, in an 18-month period since the referendum. They visited 60 places around the UK, they held 130 meetings, including focus groups and citizen’s panels. They commissioned an ICM national survey with a representative sample and carried out an open online survey. It involved 19, 951 people in total.

They found a ‘moderate but mostly unheard majority’ who were mostly ‘balancers’, seeing gains and pressures, values and challenges of migration. They found that anti-immigration sentiment was over-hyped. And that people wanted a system which was fair, controlled and based on contribution. They wanted local experiences, good and not so good, of migration and its impacts, to be considered in national policy.

Even that word ‘controls’, though, has become polluted. This has happened because of the ways that people who actually like immigration have loaded it, and in my view, most unhelpfully and in misleading ways. My own party, in 2015, put ‘Controls on Immigration’ on a mug – you may remember it? Not a great idea. At that election I was challenging an incumbent with a large majority, I was thought to be unlikely to win but possible. The incumbent used to take that mug to every hustings and event we were doing together and hold it up, saying ‘this is what Thangam’s party thinks of immigration’, usually to a response of disapproval for my party and approval for his (which is of course what he rightly judged he would get in the liberal areas of Bristol West and the areas of high immigration alike). But I was the only ethnic minority candidate, so that weakened his case. And I used to respond by pointing out that unless his party was arguing for no controls, which they weren’t, then this mug, whilst pointless, was simply a statement of fact. I won anyway, and although he tried waving the mug around again in 2017, he moved even lower down the scoreboard and I increased my majority. But that mug did not impress people who wanted more control over our borders either. And both it, and the criticism of it, were deeply misleading.

What have we learnt in my office caseload?

As MP for Bristol West, immigration casework is the largest single category of my caseload. This includes the whole range, from refugee and asylum work, visit visas for family members to work visas for professionals. I’ve consulted my two caseworkers for their views.

What is our experience of the Home Office?

My team and I find a great deal of cynicism in the decision makers. They require a high burden of proof and lack of understanding of other cultures, of suffering through armed conflict or extreme poverty. In an office where a culture of disbelief and cynicism creeps in – and I know how that can happen, we get that in my own team, it’s a way of coping with the high levels of distress – this affects decisions.

Where do we get results – when we escalate to a Ministerial level, when they appear to have taken on board the individual situations, particularly post-Windrush. But that has not filtered down to the decision-makers.

Visit visas

These are people who are caught up in a system which for various reasons is failing them – partly because of the nature of their lives which do not fit the requirements of the Home Office and partly because of the culture of disbelief of the Home Office when they don’t.

In one case, a woman who wanted to see her son’s graduation at the local University was initially denied a visitor visa on the grounds that the HO didn’t believe she would return to her own country, even though she had stacks of evidence of visits to Canada where another son lives. We got that decision overturned in time and have lovely pictures of the graduation ceremony.

In another case, a headteacher who has been coming to Bristol each year for years, as a school twinning activity, who has a job as a headteacher to which she is devoted and has clear evidence of that devotion, was initially denied a visa on the grounds that she wasn’t coming for the reasons she said she was coming and that the student from her school who she was bringing was her own child. We got that decision overturned because the head of the Bristol school knew to get me involved and there was compelling and overwhelming evidence.

Family reunion

Mrs D had children she wanted to bring here. She escaped from an Islamic fundamentalist regime, her husband was shot, her children fled in different directions. She spent years searching for her children via the Red Cross. Eventually she found them, but they were living with an unscrupulous exploitative man who wanted to keep getting the money she was sending. The Red Cross got them out, but then they had to go to another country to apply for family reunion. They didn’t have documents, they didn’t have TB certification, one child wasn’t her biological child but had no parents. The lack of understanding of the complexity and sometimes extreme experiences of life in these circumstances seem to make it difficult for a Home Office official to accept that they might be true. There is also a lack of cultural understanding and a number of practical impediments to getting this family reunited.

There is a great deal which could be fixed in our immigration system. I have offered many suggestions directly to the Home Secretary and the immigration minister.

The UK government’s proposals for a post-EU migration system

The UK Government proposed in a White Paper late last year that we would have a new, global system for migration, with equal rights across all countries, and restrictions on low-skilled migration. I am shocked at he casual attitude towards leaving it so late, given our departure was supposed to be end of March.

So you’d expect that the new system would at least satisfy the people who voted leave because they wanted control of our borders.

People told British Futures and Hope not Hate that they want migrants to work and to integrate. How does the new system stack up?

It still does not give asylum seekers the right to work, which makes it harder for them to integrate and keeps them dependent on meagre allowances.

It creates a category of low-skilled temporary migration but limits it to one year, which allows no time for integration. These twelve-month visas will not be available to anyone from anywhere, but only to people from so-called ‘low risk’ countries, essentially the EU, plus the USA, Australia and Canada. Notice anything? At best this is a continuation of the two tier system. At worst, it would not be hard to call this system racist.

The rules for high-skilled migration have also been reformed but if we hoped for a system which gave everyone across the world equal rights to migrate to the UK, as promised during the referendum campaign, again, we will be disappointed. In theory there is a one-world system, which allows employers to bring people here for specific jobs, providing their salary is to be higher than £30,000 each year and they are at a high level of qualification.

This is not really a one-world system and not one which fits the demands of the labour market.

So if we aren’t to have fully open borders and we aren’t to have completely closed, what principles would we want to apply to guide us?

Contribution, control and fairness are the principles highlighted by the work of British Futures and Hope not Hate.

Public support for immigration needs political leaders to build support for integration and deal head-on with the pressures that it can cause for local communities. Because of the high concentration of asylum seekers and low-skilled EU migrants in areas where housing costs are low, and these tend to be areas of economic decline, it should not surprise us that for local communities this tends to lead to a cause-and-effect link between decline and the presence of migrants.

On 19 September 2016, the UN General Assembly held a high-level meeting on addressing large movements of refugees and migrants, at which the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants was adopted. The Global Compact on Refugees which came out of this, prepared by UNHCR and agreed at the General Assembly last year, aims to share the responsibility of hosting refugees and funding refugee programmes more equitably.

We could use these principles to guide us, but we need to take our humanitarian principles further. We should end the iniquitous practice of indefinite immigration detention. We need to scrap the ban on asylum seekers working, which leads to massive waste of human capital, frustration from asylum seekers and struggles to gain meaningful work once they are granted status.

We also need to halt the use of poor-quality but expensive accommodation in which the asylum seeker is vulnerable to unsafe, unhealthy living conditions and we the tax payer are making some very unscrupulous landlords and middle men rich.

We could decide that giving high quality legal advice to all who apply for asylum is in everyone’s interest – including us, the public, who pay for poor quality legal advice in ‘legal aid deserts’ and the consequences of that when people submit appeals or fresh applications which have no chance of success, either because there is no case or because the consequences of bad advice have adversely affected the chances of success in what was once a good case.

It is not reasonable to say that all Home Office practice is bad – of course, I mostly get told only about the cases where things have gone wrong, that’s the nature of an MP’s caseload. I’ve had some excellent Home Office officials help me, my caseworkers and my constituents. Our system provides asylum for thousands of people who need it. It allows many thousands of people to live and work here legally. It reunites many families.


The fear I have about tonight’s results is not, by the way, that my party will do very badly, I think that will surprise nobody. It is about the rise of the far right across the entire EU 27. The thought that in the space of a few generations we have gone in the Netherlands from Nazi occupation to deciding that Geert Wilders was not right wing enough is horrifying. These are the results I will be studying most closely tonight.

Because if we don’t change, how we talk about and deal with immigration we feed the far right, who exploit people’s anxieties and struggles and give them someone to blame.

We need Light to Get In!

If we want to change how people see immigration, we need to treat their concerns and worries fairly, whether or not they are wrong or ill-informed or possibly correct and reasonable. We need more of the national discussion and debate that we have so far left to NGOs. We need more honesty. We who proudly state our love for migration need to stop assuming the worst when people say otherwise – just using the word ‘control’ or having worries about migration, or asking questions about what benefits migrants are entitled to, that’s not proof that they are racist, or bad, or even wrong. Benefits should be contributory – that was the founding principle of the welfare state! Safety nets are safety nets. There will have to be rules for how these are all used and so yes, someone who does not meet the rules may lose out.

But rules need to be fair, and seen to be fair. People need to believe in them. Ideally all of us.

The inequality of experience of migration needs to be addressed, as does wider economic and social inequality. We have to share out the benefits of economic growth, of migration, of a prosperous country. There should not be left-behind towns – and there are. Plenty. Wide inequality, as you probably all know, is a problem for other reasons. It is economically inefficient, it is morally questionable, it creates social problems and affects the mental and physical health of an entire country or region.

If we don’t have a decent, national discussion about migration and if we don’t tackle inequality, the far right has fertile ground to work with. Where there is inequality and injustice coupled with un-addressed concerns about immigration, the far right will use any opportunity to stoke up hatred of the other, and that is a task made easier if we have an immigration system which is neither understood nor supported by the majority of people.

So I end with this: Migration is largely a good thing, but has challenges which have to be addressed, and its benefits and challenges are not fairly shared out within or between countries and regions. Inequality drives attitudes towards migration and we need to reduce inequality anyway for many reasons.

From the daughter of a migrant, married to an EU migrant, as an MP representing a full spectrum of migrants and non-migrants, thank you for listening and I look forward to discussion.

Thank you.

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