What of our long-resident irregular immigrants?

Tim Finch and IPPR find “no easy options”.

As the government introduces increasingly restrictive measures to cut down on legal immigration, the problem of the large and long-resident illegal or irregular immigrant population remains largely unresolved.

This population built up in the late 1990s and first decade of this century when international migration boomed and the UK's immigration systems proved hopelessly inadequate to the task of managing inflows and outflows.

Anyone who has worked in the migration sector, as I have, will have heard frequent stories of people who have stayed in this country for many years with no legal status, who've been able to find work and accommodation, who've started relationships or even families, and who've put down roots. They shouldn't really be here, but they are – and removing them after so long is difficult, to say the least.

In a major new IPPR report called No Easy Options we set ourselves the task of trying to come up with new ideas to solve this thorny issue. As the title implies, we certainly did not find a magic solution. Rather, we concluded that this government will have to pursue a raft of policies over many years, starting in the countries of origin and following the whole migrant journey.

Public information campaigns, tighter visa regimes, greater co-operation with transit countries, more sophisticated border security, embarcation controls, enhanced enforcement measures and a suite of return and resolution initiatives – all will be needed if the scale of irregularity is to be reduced.

Scale on its own is an issue, as the irregular population almost certainly runs into the hundreds of thousands. However, perhaps more important, in our view, is the impact that widespread irregularity has on the public's tolerance of immigration. This country needs migrants and migrants make an important contribution, but it is clear that the public will be persuaded of that only if the government can demonstrate that it can keep control of who comes and who goes.

It is often the case, as many campaigners argue, that irregulars are not doing much or any harm, as well as making an economic contribution. In our extensive research, we found individual irregular immigrants to be generally hard-working, decent, nice people. Their dreams and aspirations of a better life are perfectly laudable. But that is not the point. There is a system of rules, and they are breaking them. If this is allowed to persist, the integrity of the immigration system is badly damaged – and with it public confidence in migration in general.

Flexible friends

Some on the progressive wing of the migration debate have favoured the idea of a mass regularisation programme – or amnesty – arguing that most irregulars are innocent victims of the injustices and inefficiencies of the immigration system. There is a lot in this claim and, indeed, IPPR in the past has supported it. But in this report, we come out against the idea.

Again the reasons are as much about political realism as they are about the merits or otherwise of amnesties (in truth, the pros and cons are pretty finely balanced). The most recent survey data suggests that fewer than one in four of the public backs regularisation and mainstream political support for it has evaporated since the issue played so badly for the Liberal Democrats in the 2010 general election.

Better in our mind is to increase the flexibility and generosity of the current system – which, despite its harsh rhetoric (see for example Damian Green's response to the report in the Guardian), actually already provides opportunities for "quiet" regularisation. We would favour extending and embedding these measures so that special cases, such as stateless people or those facing obvious danger on return, could be subject to "status resolution", at least temporarily.

We also argue that the many thousands of minor infringers (short-term overstayers, for instance) should be offered the opportunity of "recompliance", taking them out of irregularity.

At the same time, we think migrant-supporting organisations need to recognise that return will often be the only option for an irregular immigrant, and they can best serve the welfare of their clients if they work with the authorities to make the return process as painless and supportive as possible.

At present, it has become something of a badge of honour among some organisations to fight return in almost every instance – though it is interesting that since our report went to press one of the leading refugee charities, Refugee Action, has taken over the voluntary return schemes previously administered by the International Organisation for Migration. This is very positive step.

Eyes on the endgame

Meanwhile, this government needs to learn from the last that acting smart and playing it long is a better approach than acting tough and chasing quick wins.

Our evidence suggests that the "hostile environment" strategy of making life more difficult for irregulars and their employers, as well as increasing raids and crackdowns, is certainly having an impact on the lives of irregulars – but it isn't delivering the desired endgame of more return.

Figures in our report show that the level of return doubled between 1997 and 2002, but since then has plateaued at around the 60,000-65,000 per annum mark. If this number is to increase, then a greater range of actions, involving a great number of actors (and yes, greater investment) will be needed.

For this to happen, the government needs to lead the way in taking a more co-operative, less combative approach on the issue, reaching out to those who work in the field and enlisting them in the process of increasing the numbers who return.

It will also need to consider one other thing that is politically very difficult. Irregular immigrants are able to survive in this country because there is work for them do. Most of it is at the bottom end of the labour market.

If irregular immigration is to be squeezed out of the system, but the "pull factor" or demand side that drives it persists, ministers will have to face up to the need, over time, for some legal routes for low-skilled and no-skilled immigration from outside the EU to be opened up.

Tim Finch is director of communications at IPPR.

Tim Finch is director of communications for IPPR

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An unmatched font of knowledge

Edinburgh’s global reputation as a knowledge economy is rooted in the performance and international outlook of its four universities.

As sociologist-turned US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan recognised when asked how to create a world-class city, a strong academic offering is pivotal to any forward-looking, ambitious city. “Build a university,” he said, “and wait 200 years.” He recognised the long-term return such an investment can deliver; how a renowned academic institution can help attract the world. However, in today’s increasingly globalised higher education sector, world-class universities no longer rely on the world coming to come to them – their outlook is increasingly international.

Boasting four world-class universities, Edinburgh not only attracts and retains students from around the world, but also increasingly exports its own distinctively Scottish brand of academic excellence. In fact, 53.9% of the city’s working age population is educated to degree level.

In the most recent QS World University Rankings, the University of Edinburgh was named as the 21st best university in the world, reflecting its reputation for research and teaching. It’s a fact reflected in the latest UK Research Exercise Framework (REF), conducted in 2014, which judged 96% of its academic departments to be producing world-leading research.

Innovation engine

Measured across the UK, annual Gross Value Added (GVA) by University of Edinburgh start-ups contributes more than £164m to the UK economy. In fact, of 262 companies to emerge from the university since the 1960s, 81% remain active today, employing more than 2,700 staff globally. That performance places the University of Edinburgh ahead of institutions such as MIT in terms of the number of start-ups it generates; an innovation hothouse that underlines why one in four graduates remain in Edinburgh and why blue chip brands such as Amazon, IBM and Microsoft all have R&D facilities in the city.

One such spin out making its mark is PureLiFi, founded by Professor Harald Haas to commercialise his groundbreaking research on data transmission using the visible light spectrum. With data transfer speeds 10,000 times faster than radio waves, LiFi not only enables bandwidths of 1 Gigabit/sec but is also far more secure.

Edinburgh’s universities play a pivotal role in the local economy. Through its core operations, knowledge transfer activities and world-class research the University generated £4.9bn in GVA and 44,500 jobs globally, when accounting for international alumni.

With £1.4bn earmarked for estate development over the next 10 years, the University of Edinburgh remains the city’s largest property developer. Its extensive programme of investment includes the soon-to-open Higgs Centre for Innovation. A partnership with the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, the new centre will open next year and will supply business incubation support for potential big data and space technology applications, enabling start-ups to realise the commercial potential of applied research in subjects such as particle physics.

It’s a story of innovation that is mirrored across Edinburgh’s academic landscape. Each university has carved its own areas of academic excellence and research expertise, such as the University of Edinburgh’s renowned School of Informatics, ranked among the world’s elite institutions for Computer Science. 

The future of energy

Research conducted into the economic impact of Heriot-Watt University demonstrated that it generates £278m in annual GVA for the Scottish economy and directly supports more than 6,000 jobs.

Set in 380-acres of picturesque parkland, Heriot-Watt University incorporates the Edinburgh Research Park, the first science park of its kind in the UK and now home to more than 40 companies.

Consistently ranked in the top 25% of UK universities, Heriot-Watt University enjoys an increasingly international reputation underpinned by a strong track record in research. 82% of the institution’s research is considered world-class (REF) – a fact reflected in a record breaking year for the university, attracting £40.6m in research funding in 2015. With an expanding campus in Dubai and last year’s opening of a £35m campus in Malaysia, Heriot-Watt is now among the UK’s top five universities in terms of international presence and numbers of international students.

"In 2015, Heriot-Watt University was ranked 34th overall in the QS ‘Top 50 under 50’ world rankings." 

Its established strengths in industry-related research will be further boosted with the imminent opening of the £20m Lyell Centre. It will become the Scottish headquarters of the British Geological Survey, and research will focus on global issues such as energy supply, environmental impact and climate change. As well as providing laboratory facilities, the new centre will feature a 50,000 litre climate change research aquarium, the UK Natural Environment Research Council Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Oil and Gas, and the Shell Centre for Exploration Geoscience.

International appeal

An increasingly global outlook, supported by a bold international strategy, is helping to drive Edinburgh Napier University’s growth. The university now has more than 4,500 students studying its overseas programmes, through partnerships with institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Sri Lanka and India.

Edinburgh Napier has been present in Hong Kong for more than 20 years and its impact grows year-on-year. Already the UK’s largest higher education provider in the territory, more than 1,500 students graduated in 2015 alone.

In terms of world-leading research, Edinburgh Napier continues to make its mark, with the REF judging 54% of its research to be either world-class or internationally excellent in 2014. The assessment singled out particular strengths in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences, where it was rated the top UK modern university for research impact. Taking into account research, knowledge exchange, as well as student and staff spending, Edinburgh Napier University generates in excess of £201.9m GVA and supports 2,897 jobs in the city economy.

On the south-east side of Edinburgh, Queen Margaret University is Scotland’s first university to have an on-campus Business Gateway, highlighting the emphasis placed on business creation and innovation.

QMU moved up 49 places overall in the 2014 REF, taking it to 80th place in The Times’ rankings for research excellence in the UK. The Framework scored 58% of Queen Margaret’s research as either world-leading or internationally excellent, especially in relation to Speech and Language Sciences, where the University is ranked 2nd in the UK.

In terms of its international appeal, one in five of Queen Margaret’s students now comes from outside the EU, and it is also expanding its overseas programme offer, which already sees courses delivered in Greece, India, Nepal, Saudi Arabia and Singapore.

With 820 years of collective academic excellence to export to the world, Edinburgh enjoys a truly privileged position in the evolving story of academic globalisation and the commercialisation of world-class research and innovation. If he were still around today, Senator Moynihan would no doubt agree – a world-class city indeed.

For further information www.investinedinburgh.com