Saturday, February 5, 2011

Immigration - it goes both ways

Yesterday, the Independent reported that "Britons have 'greater fear' of immigration" than other countries. Almost one in four thought that immigration was the most important issue facing the country, while 59 percent agreed there were "too many" people living in the country who were not born here.

These are dismal answers, with a strong whiff of xenophobia. However, I wonder whether these answers are really that informative. I sense that this survey was poorly constructed and did not identify the true underlying preferences of Britons.

While it might be true that Britons have a "fear of immigration", that is not the same thing as saying that they would like to stop migration altogether. Of course, Britons might "say" that want it stopped, but if the full consequences of a sudden halt to migration were laid out, who would actually vote for it? Judging by the results from last election, the answer would appear to be very few.

Here is the key thing about migration. There are inflows and outflows, and second order effects on average fertility. First, lets talk about the flows. The inward flows are huge. The UK gains around half a million people from overseas each year. However, the outward flows are also huge. The UK loses 300,000 people each year. Some of that is migrants going back and forth. However, a large part of it is Britons seeking opportunities and homes abroad.

Over the last decade, the UK population has increased. However, around 40-45 percent of that increase is due to migration. If migration were to stop, and outflows were to continue at current rates, the UK population would immediately start to shrink.

Added to that, we need to recognise that foreign born woman have higher fertility rates than their native born counterparts. In fact, one in four live births in the UK are to foreign born mothers. In other words, migrant families are carrying a disproportionate burden of the costs of creating future generations of workers.

The simple truth about migration is that the UK depends on it to ensure current and future prosperity. Lets be honest, you can't run a successful, dynamic and innovative economy with a population of geriatrics. That is what Britain would become without a steady flow of migrants and the willingness of migrant women to have large numbers of children. Britons may be fearful of immigration, but they fear declining living standards even more.

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