Speech: Global community must take collective action on migration

Home Office

February 27
00:00 2024

We need to talk about immigration.

Now even saying those words is enough to send some eyebrows soaring and some voices muttering which is crazy.

Because the conversation around this subject has become highly polarised and highly toxic.

And that is really bad news because if we cant do balanced and thoughtful conversation, we cant do balanced and thoughtful policy making.

And today, I want to explain why all of us must be doing balanced policy making.

Let me first say a word about this wonderful city of New York. It is a fitting venue for this speech, its been a major hub for immigration into the USA for centuries.

And the Carnegie Council are the perfect hosts, with a proud history of setting the global agenda and a mission of using the power of ethics to build a better world.

Let me talk about my country.

British society has been moulded, developed, and enhanced by centuries of immigration.

And without it, the UK would not be the place it is today.

I am descended from immigrants on both sides of my family. My mum came to the UK to work in our National Health Service from Sierra Leone around 1966 and my fathers family from Normandy in 1066.

British historians give a little chuckle and everyone else is a bit lost on that one.

My country may be a small, wet and windy island. But we are internationalist at heart, were a multi-racial country we have a history of being welcoming and generous.

And our global heritage and connections can also be seen in our language, food, culture, the representatives in our sporting teams, and the representatives in our government.

The ethnic diversity we display is so longstanding and commonplace it rarely merits a mention.

The UKs post-Brexit legal immigration system enables us to control immigration and to welcome people from every corner of the Earth that have the right skills and the right talent to support our public services and boost our economy.

And of course, well-managed immigration should also ensure that the people who come to a country also share our values and our standards.

Im very proud of that the fact UK also plays its part in helping those fleeing conflict.

In recent times we have offered a safe and legal route to over half a million people seeking refuge and their families since 2015. They include but not limited to people from Ukraine, Hong Kong, Afghanistan, and Syria.

And we support community sponsorship for refugees and have initiatives to support displaced people in accessing our labour markets.

The UK also invests heavily in international development and aid because it is an investment in security, in building future trading opportunities, and in supporting future global stability and of course while I have explained some of the benefits of immigration it is important to recognise immigration can also cause tensions, challenges and sometime problems.

Talking about myself again, one of my favourite subjects.

But we cannot and must not hide from the tensions and problems associated with immigration.

My first role as an elected politician was on the London Assembly.

I sat next to someone who had also been elected by the population in the most diverse and international city in the world even though he represented what was basically a neo-fascist political party.

He was elected in large part because immigration in east London in particular had been badly mishandled and mainstream politicians had ducked the issues about the community tension that that immigration had caused.

Thats the potential risk if we get this issue wrong.

We need to look at the impact on GDP, and culture, and also the pressures on cohesion, housing, and public services.

We cant just talk about the amazing positive impact of NHS staff like my mum and other immigrants but then not discuss the sometimes unpredictable and increased challenges for public services.

And we must recognise that while the benefits of immigration are typically widespread, dispersed, the downsides, pressures and challenges can be felt very locally, and can create real hotspots.

This has been true throughout time. We saw it in the Huguenots coming to east London, we saw it in the Notting Hill riots in 1958.

New York, our host today, is a world-famous metropolis, hugely enhanced by its cosmopolitan nature and the mix of the people that live here. But it too has faced big tensions because of unplanned immigration. American politicians cannot, and must not ignore that.

Weve got to recognise the nature of immigration is international by definition.

People move in the modern era for the same reasons they always have: physical safety and economic opportunity.

There is nothing new about going where they believe the streets are paved with gold.

But this phenomena has been accelerated, amplified by modern technology and transport.

Journeys that used to be difficult to arrange and potentially take years to make can now be done very quickly and arranged on a mobile phone.

And if it is an illegal journey, it can be facilitated by a people-smuggler who is in neither the country of origin nor destination.

Likewise, the fact that people send so much money back home both formally and informally means that a whole family can harness one persons risk-taking. Global remittance flows exceeded $840 billion last year.

Altogether, there are now around 281 million migrants, accounting for about 3.6 per cent of the global population, and of that number well over 100 million forcibly displaced people.

And the momentum is very much in the direction of even greater travel flows whether for economic reasons, or because of conflict, climate change, natural disaster, hunger, or other factors.

And counterintuitively an initial increase in a poor persons wealth actually makes them more likely to move, because they have acquired the financial means to do so.

We must all expect larger and larger numbers of new arrivals, whether they are in transit to another country or seeking a permanent home.

And of course economic migrants often spread their wings to places far from their home.

Whilst well intentioned, blithely insisting that wealthier countries can simply take higher and higher numbers is Im afraid deluded. It is neither economically nor socially sustainable.

We often pay too little attention to the impact of migration on those countries from which people are leaving in large numbers.

A talent drain can be devastating have a devastating effect, causing a flight of capital, huge gaps in the workforce, and security issues in those countries.

It can be extremely expensive for countries to train professionals only to see them then take their skills elsewhere, for what they perceive to be a more lucrative lifestyle.

In receiving countries, citizens will suffer if their country fails to invest in skills and training and then plugs those gaps with immigration.

I also feel there distasteful, perhaps grubby about concluding that certain jobs are beneath our citizens and should be left exclusively to be done only to immigrants.

But as I said, in a very polarised debate it is important to leave a space for nuance, as some countries urgently need an injection of labour and skills.

Countries with ageing populations may need immigration to support their economic needs. Some are already adjusting their immigration policies accordingly.

Even in those circumstances the migration needs to be legal, predictable and well managed.

While many immigrants move to a new country full of excitement and hope, seeking a new prosperous life, others do so with a heavy heart, because circumstances in their home countries have forced the move upon them.

I am very keen to see the vast majority of the Ukrainians who have taken refuge in the UK return home

emphatically not because they arent welcome, because they very much are but because I know its what they want.

I hope that they will look back on their time in the UK with immense fondness, and affection, but I also want to make sure Putin fails and Ukrainians we host are once again able to go back to their own country, a country safe and free from occupation.

Not only do conflict and corruption create refugees, seen a new phenomena but hostile states deliberately create refugee crises as a way of de-stabilising other countries.

Belarus is an ignoble example of this phenomenon, sending thousands of desperate migrants to its border with Poland, in an effort to antagonise the European Union following the imposition of sanctions for their culpability in Russias invasion of Ukraine.

Others are of course fleeing famine.

Others will face natural disasters. Thats one of the reasons that the world must come together to tackle climate change.

Migration is an inevitable and welcome part of the human story. But in many cases, what people yearn for is a safe and happy home in the country of their birth.

And countries are entitled and its quite right to ask: what is the virtue and purpose of someone coming to live in our country?

In this instance once again we need to employ precision of the language that we use.

People have very different reasons for moving and those reasons should not be conflated, confused and they are not interchangeable. elided.

If someone is an economic migrant, they should not be treated like a refugee.

Refugees should typically seek sanctuary in the first safe country they reach. And country shopping is a very different matter entirely. Seeking refu

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