The Light of Evidence 3: Continuing the policy debate

Published 26 August 2014 / By COMPAS Communications

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COMPAS’s original brief was to conduct research that provided new evidence, challenged assumptions, developed theory, and informed policy and public debate in the migration field: this remains true today. Our work has explored changing migration processes and outcomes. But informing migration policy has been an equal crucial part of our mission.

We have argued that academics play a key role in public life in addressing the gaps in the evidence base, interrogating underlying assumptions, and investigating the development of migration policy itself. In particular, we have worked to bring our own research, and that of the wider community of migration scholars, to bear on political and policy debate in the UK, with the hope of shaping a more fact-based – and less emotionally and ideologically driven – conversation about the phenomenon that is so central to our changing world.

In this spirit, for the last four years, COMPAS has organised monthly Breakfast Briefings in Westminster, to bring the latest research evidence on a range of migration-related issues to a policy-making audience.

These Briefings were funded from COMPAS’s core grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Now that our ESRC core funding period has ended, we remain committed to productively contributing to policy debates in the UK and beyond, and we are very pleased to have won funding from Oxford University for a range of Knowledge Exchange activities which we will launch after the summer, including a continuation of our Breakfast Briefing series. We are grateful too to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), an independent thinktank in Westminster which hosts the Briefings, making them accessible to policy-makers.

I summarised the 2011/12 series here and the 2012/13 here. In this post, I will describe some of the highlights of the 2013/14 series.

Local impacts of migration

The series began with a briefing by Jon Simmons, the head of the Migration and Border Analysis for Home Office Science, focusing on the local-level social and public service impacts of international migration, based on an important recent report from Home Office Science (which I blogged about here).

Earth “Global Village”Using a large suite of variables, the report allocated the local authorities of England and Wales to twelve clusters, ranging from “superdiverse London” through “Rural and Coastal Retirement Areas” to “Low Migration Small Towns and Rural Areas”, each with different types of migrant populations. Then the experiences of local authorities were analysed to start the processes of unpacking the huge variations in the social and service delivery implications of different types of migrant populations.

Jon’s briefing zoomed in on “Diverse conurbation centres”, such as Birmingham and Bradford, where long-settled BME populations have been augmented by on-going migration from the global South; “Migrant worker towns and countryside”, places such as Boston, Breckland and Thanet, with very few African and Asian migrants but large numbers of EU accession migrant workers arriving among an ageing, stable and relatively ethnically homogenous population; “Prosperous small towns”, such as St Alban’s or the towns of the Cotswolds, economically vibrant areas to which long-settled migrants are moving; and “Industrial and manufacturing towns”, such as Hartlepool or Merthyr Tydfil, deprived areas with among the fewest international migrants and most stable populations in the country.

The variation between such places – the very different ways in which migration patterns are re-shaping each of them – shows why our migration debate needs to go beyond the simplistic and frequently alarmist facts and pseudo-facts so often thrown around. But it also points to key gaps in the evidence base on migration at the local level. Understanding how place matters in migration and its impacts – capturing Britain’s new cartography of diversity – has become a research priority for COMPAS.

The price of rights

Our second briefing moved from the local to the global. COMPAS’s Martin Ruhs presented material related to his new book, The Price of Rights. He asked how we might balance openness and rights in labour immigration policy. Drawing on evidence from 43 countries, he showed that the openness of labour migration correlates with the skills of the migrants targeted and that more skilled migrants are granted more skills.

The empirical trade-off between open borders and migrant rights raises normative policy questions, and is a challenge to a pro-migration lobby which has assumed that both openness and rights are a good thing. Martin’s contribution to this debate exemplifies one of the key elements of the COMPAS approach. As we wrote in the report of that name, published for our tenth anniversary earlier this year, COMPAS’ work has revealed the trade-offs that characterise migration decision-making at every level. Trade-offs shape policy and yet their hidden nature means they are often not debated. Without transparency on the costs and benefits of such decisions, we cannot have an evidence-based migration debate.

Work and irregularity

The next briefing, by Alice Bloch, Professor of Sociology at Manchester, stayed with the topic of the labour market and migrant rights, but zooming in to the micro level, presenting the findings of qualitative research with irregular migrants in the UK. Rather than presenting irregular migrants as either outlaws undermining British workers or exploited victims of the immigration system, Alice showed that irregular migrants use mobility and a range of other strategies to exercise some agency in the face of both constraints and opportunities. The experience of irregular migrants is extremely heterogeneous, defying generalisation.

The project looked at Bangladeshi, Turkish and Chinese migrants working beneath the radar in the UK, mainly in the food sector, living in a state of precarity in which insubordination at work or the choice of walking to work and catching the bus might be a step to deportation. But Alice also explored the choices such migrants can make, such as choosing to stay in a job or leave, or to move within a city or to another city.

Alice concluded that more punitive policy will stop neither the flow of migration nor the employment of workers without the correct documentation, but will further entrench marginalized workers in the most precarious and unregulated parts of the economy.

Migration in Scotland

Allan Findlay and David McCollum, of the University of St. Andrews, and Jakub Bijak, of the University of Southampton, provided a very different take on migration and policy. Like Alice’s project, their work is funded by the ESRC, this time as part of its The Future of the UK and Scotland programme, which has also supported some of the work of the Migration Observatory.

Scotland-welcome signIn September, of course, Scotland will hold an historic referendum on its constitutional future. Migration is an important aspect of the debates surrounding this ballot: the current UK government has emphasised its desire to restrict immigration to Britain, whilst the Scottish Government has viewed net immigration as a valuable contributor to the economic and demographic growth of Scotland. Allan and colleagues explored these contrasting positions using secondary datasets and interviews with employers, students and local authorities, addressing the challenges and opportunities that Scotland faces in devising an immigration policy attuned to its particular needs, whatever the outcome of the referendum.

Scotland became a net migration nation only in the current century, its population growth rate only catching up with the rest of Europe’s as a result of that shift. But while the proportion of foreign-born nationals in England is among the highest in EU (just behind Spain), the proportion in Scotland remains one of the lowest (just ahead of Lithuania). Students constitute a massive part of that proportion, even more than in England, and very new migrants are very heavily represented.

However, looked at from a different scale, in comparison with the regions of the UK, Scotland appears less exceptional: the migrant percentage is lower than most English regions (although higher than in the North East, but only slightly, with London’s extremely high migrant population skewing England’s demographic profile considerably: at this scale it is London that stands out rather than Scotland. Forecasting the future of migration in Scotland is hard. Using Bayesian analysis, the research project predicts that independence will most dramatically change the picture, but with experts divided on whether the impact will be positive or negative.

The final part of the briefing focused on the exceptional nature of migration attitudes in Scotland. Employers in Scotland value immigration and are critical of the UK’s restrictive and London-centric policies. The general public is much less hostile than in England (apart from in inner London), with strong support for Scotland controlling its own borders and referendum Yes voters being far more pro-migration than No voters.

Challenging far right extremism

The next briefing shifted scale to look at local policy, but in a larger comparative perspective. Vidhya Ramalingam, a Research and Policy Manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, presented the findings of a two-year research project, funded by the European Commission, to assess policy and practitioner approaches to far-right extremism across 10 EU countries (UK, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Slovak Republic), and enhance European cooperation and sharing of good practice.

The briefing focused on a series of policy recommendations, based on the evidence of what works across Europe. Among these were the following. Interventions should be underpinned by clear and consistent legal frameworks. Public agencies need to work with communities to deliver effective responses. There must be serious long-term investments in preventive measures, also focusing on deterrence, offering alternatives. There is a key role for improved and streamlined data gathering, both within countries and across the EU. Governments and NGOs should work together to enhance public understanding of the threat, underpinned by clear political messages. And finally there’s a need for major capacity building initiatives to enhance the ability of frontline workers to spot and respond to the signs of radicalisation.

This briefing was followed by a roundtable involving local practitioners from Luton, who powerfully described their steep journey in response to the emergence of both jihadist and far right mobilisation in the city.


Our April briefing was also focused on effective intervention. It explored both the scale of and potential response to migrant destitution and was provided by MigrationWork’s Sue Lukes, and the Chartered Institute of Housing’s John Perry, both former members of the Housing and Migration Network, who have built the housing rights website

Pauper sleeping on a cardboardThe briefing provided evidence on the growing scale of migrant destitution in the UK, and especially in the capital, the weaknesses in the methodologies we have for counting, and the changes in welfare provision and immigration that law that shape these trends. Sue described both rough sleeping and marginal forms of accommodation (including “beds in sheds”). The second part of the briefing shifted to policy responses, the huge challenges posed to the advice sector, and some potential good practice. A case study of the Hope project in Birmingham gave a sense of what can be done at a local level, despite constraints.

NGOs and voluntary returns

In the May briefing, Derek McGhee and Claire Bennett, based at our partner research institute the Centre for Population Change at the University of Southampton, presented on the findings of the ESRC project Tried and Trusted?, which asks What is the role of NGOs in AVR, the assisted voluntary returns of asylum seekers and irregular migrants?

Under the government’s AVR programme, returnees are not subjected to outward mechanisms of enforcement (handcuffs, guards, etc.) but rather ‘choose’ to return and are granted a support package to reintegrate. NGOs are becoming heavily involved in these programmes, and in the UK the entire programme is implemented by a refugee charity. This generates ethical dilemmas for the sector, which the project explored through qualitative interviews.

Mainstreaming migrant integration

The final briefing of the year focused on integration, and provided a comparative picture drawn from research across Europe. Elizabeth Collett and Milica Petrovic, of Migration Policy Institute Europe,

The research was done as part of an MPI Europe project for the Dutch government to explore different models of mainstreaming migrant integration in Western European countries, in the context of sharp cuts to integration budgets Europe-wide.

Block ShapesIntegration policy, Liz and Milica argued, is at a crossroads. Changing demographics (superdiversity), austerity and budget cuts, a sense of failed failed integration measures, and the rejection of stigmatisation and prioritisation by some minorities have all driven a turn from targeted integration policies towards “generic” mainstream measures, whether in discourse, in governance or in actual concrete policies. This offers opportunities – the leverage of whole-of-government approaches, addressing needs, not background, using funds effectively – but also challenges – confusion about ownership, vulnerable groups falling through the cracks. Since the briefing, the UK report of the project has been published, written by Sundas Ali and me.

As Liz and Milica noted, questions remain: When are mainstream policies insufficient to address specific needs? When is a targeted approach needed? How to ensure really shared responsibility? How to identify and address needs effectively? How to evaluate what works? Partly building on this work, Erasmus University Rotterdam developed the UpStream project, in which COMPAS is a partner, exploring the politics and practice of mainstreaming in more depth, attempting to address these gaps in evidence.