Immigration and border control signs at Edinburgh Airport. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Is illegal immigration really "getting worse"?

Contrary to Yvette Cooper, the evidence suggests that the problem is less severe than commonly thought.

The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, recently made a major speech on "Labour’s approach to immigration". This blog isn’t about the speech as a whole (much was fairly sensible on the benefits of migration and the damage being done by government policy in some areas, but it lacked substantive policy proposals to improve matters). Instead I want to focus on one specific paragraph, because it exemplifies the sort of alarmist, yet evidence-free, rhetoric that is increasingly common from politicians of all parties on this topic:

"At the same time illegal immigration – which isn’t included in the target – is getting worse. More people are absconding at the border, fewer are being caught and sent home, and the number of people here illegally is growing."

What does she mean by this? It appears to be true that more people are "absconding at the border" and removals are down. But so what? Only a very small proportion of those not legally present in the UK enter illegally - the vast majority are asylum seekers whose claims (and appeals) have been denied, and those overstaying their visas. Are there more of those? The fact that (slightly) fewer such people are being deported could indeed mean that there are more who aren't. But it could equally, and just as plausibly, mean exactly the opposite, if the reason is actually simply that there are fewer out there.  

So what does the evidence say? Is it correct that "illegal immigration..is getting worse..and the number of people here illegally is growing"? The last serious estimate of the number of those illegally resident in the UK was made in 2009, with data to the end of 2007; the estimate then was for a range of 420,000 to 860,000, with a central estimate of 620,000; this is the number most commonly quoted, although Migration Watch, assert the number is more likely to be about a million, by adding an arbitrary half a million overstayers and illegal entrants.

But what has happened since 2007? The 2009 report, itself based on an earlier Home Office study, found that the most important group of illegal residents was failed asylum-seekers, resulting from the period of very high flows in the early 2000s, and the resulting breakdown in the administration of the asylum system. Since then, however, while the flow of asylum seekers has remained fairly stable at much lower levels, a major regularisation programme, beginning in 2007 – amnesty in all but name for well over 100,000 applicants, especially those with children – has dealt with much of this issue. Indeed, as a result of this programme (begun by the previous government but mostly implemented by this one), in 2010 more immigrants were granted permanent residence in the UK than ever before.  

Although it is almost impossible to make sense of Home Office data on this topic, this Home Affairs Committee report suggests that of about half a million unresolved cases (in some cases, people whose claims had been denied; in many other cases, people who'd been lost in the system) more than 70 percent have been resolved (either by giving the applicants leave to remain; or because they had already left the country; or because the files were errors or duplicates). In any case, these cases no longer represent people who are here without legal residency. It is impossible to say how that affects the numbers  - but it does seem probable, therefore, that the number of failed asylum seekers is now considerably lower than in 2007.

This effect also shows up in aggregate immigration data. In the period 2001-07 inclusive, net non-EU migration to the UK was more than 1.5 million; during the same period, about 1 million people were granted settlement (indefinite leave to remain or similar). While the discrepancy is not in any sense a measure of irregular migration (there are lots of reasons why someone might immigrate here and not show up in contemporaneous settlement data) it is indicative of the overall balance between the number of people moving here and those given legal residency. By contrast, in the period 2008-12 inclusive, the two figures were not far apart, at somewhat over and just under 900,000 respectively. This does not look obviously consistent with a growing irregular population in the latter period.

Similar confirmation that there is not a large illegally resident population that has somehow been missed is provided by a comparison between the immigration data from the International Passenger Survey (IPS) and the 2011 Census. The fact that the immigration data "missed" a lot of EU migrants has attracted a lot of attention; what has been less well publicised is that the IPS-based estimates for non-EU migration turned out to be surprisingly accurate, with hardly any discrepancy with the Census. If Migration Watch was right about the extra half million  (who would not have been counted by the IPS) then where exactly are these people now?

Finally, although it is not probative, another piece of evidence suggests that the number of illegal residents may actually be rather lower than we thought. Data from the Metropolitan Police continue to show, as I first noted here, that even when immigration officers are directly involved in the processing of all those arrested in London, immigration action is taken against a remarkably small proportion: slightly under 1 per cent. More detail in my article, but unless we believe that irregular migrants are remarkably law-abiding compared both to natives and legal immigrants (who offend at approximately the same rate as natives) then it may be that levels of irregular migration are considerably lower than previously thought. Again, Migration Watch's "estimate" that the illegally resident population of London is about half a million (more than 6 percent) looks implausible in this light.

To conclude: for obvious reasons, it is very difficult to be definitive about the number of people illegally resident in the UK, let alone whether the problem is getting "worse" or "better". Given that illegal and irregular immigration is, quite rightly, a sensitive issue among both native Britons and legally resident immigrants, this alone should have given Yvette pause before making a definitive statement on the topic.

Moreover, the balance of the evidence and data that we do have suggests that, if anything, the problem is perhaps rather less severe than commonly thought. Politicians, Yvette no exception, often say that "politicians didn’t talk enough about immigration" – to the intense irritation of those of us who’ve been talking about little else for the last 15 years.  But feeling that you need to talk about something is not an excuse for getting it wrong. 

Jonathan Portes is senior fellow The UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Economics and Public Policy, King’s College London.

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.