Email therese Tony Blair DATELINE – Look around

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Tony
Blair

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DATELINE – Look around the most advanced
liberal democracies today and you won’t find one untouched by political debate over
immigration. It has destroyed governments, produced new parties and new
alliances of political affiliation and bitterly divides communities and
generations. In the United Kingdom, it was arguably the single biggest factor behind Britain’s vote to leave the
European Union in 2016.

 

This issue is not going away. Technological
and economic change mean more people are crossing borders than ever before.

Across the developed world, countries are working out how to cope with record
increases in the number of international migrants — about 5
million people migrated permanently to OECD countries in 2016, many more
than the previous peak in 2007. Businesses competing in a global marketplace
are hungry for the best international talent. Countries with ageing populations
depend on younger dynamic workers from abroad. Climate change and poverty are
leading millions to seek a better life elsewhere. And the ongoing instability
caused by the civil wars in Syria and Libya is at the heart of a refugee crisis
where millions have been forced to flee their homes to seek refuge.

 

Those of us in favor of open, liberal, tolerant
societies need to recognize that movement on this scale is creating real
challenges for policymakers in established democracies. There can be pressure
on services within communities from an influx of migrants or refugees, downward
pressure on wages in certain sectors of the economy, questions of cultural
integration — especially when immigrants are from more conservative Muslim
backgrounds — and there is anxiety that governments do not properly control who
is allowed in to the country and who has a right to stay.

 

I sometimes hear it argued, particularly on
the left, that the very act of engaging seriously with those concerns amounts to
a form of political surrender; instead of pandering to people’s anxieties, the
priority for centrist politicians should be to make the case more clearly and
explicitly for the benefits of immigration. This is not just misguided. It is
dangerous.

 

Of course, politicians of all persuasions have
an obligation to call out prejudice and fight attempts to use immigration as a
means of exploiting fears to sow division. However, I do not believe that the
majority of public concern about immigration is driven by irrational fear. When
one looks at attitudinal data across Europe, for example, it is clear that most people are not actually anti-immigrant.

They understand that their country needs some categories of migrant worker, particularly
the highly skilled. And they’re not indifferent to the plight of genuine
refugees. But they believe — not unreasonably — that countries should have the
right to control their own borders and that the system is fundamentally not
well managed.

 

In other words, these are legitimate concerns —
and progressive politicians have a duty to try to respond to them. The
alternative is a vacuum whereby the most prominent voices on immigration are
extreme ones and/or right-wing politicians making populist promises that damage
trust even further.

 

The U.K. is a case in point. The Conservative
government has, since 2010, based their entire immigration policy around a
single numerical target: to reduce net migration. It is hard to think of a more
damaging policy failure in recent years. The government’s consistent inability
to meet its own target has damaged the public’s faith in the ability of
politicians to manage migration and ended up skewing public policy priorities. For
example, the government is in the absurd position of celebrating a rise in
emigration and/or attempting to clamp down on foreign students, simply because
they are the easiest category of migration to restrict. Meanwhile, delivering
Brexit has become the mechanism for achieving “control” over the U.K.’s
borders, even though migration from
outside the EU has been higher than EU migration over the last decade.

 

There is no future for liberal democracy in
pulling up the drawbridge to immigrants. Immigration is vital for the future of
our economies and societies. But it needs to be controlled and managed so the
system is fair and can command public support. The Tony Blair Institute will shortly be
publishing a new paper setting out a principled, comprehensive and pragmatic
agenda for immigration policy in the 21st century — one which maximizes
economic benefits while securing the widest possible public consent. This is
needed to reduce the space for populists to use immigration as a tool to
exploit people’s legitimate fears, sow division and de-legitimize liberal
democratic institutions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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