British Immigration Policy, New Labour, and the rights of migrants: A critical assessment

Delivered by Don Flynn at the Signs of the Times seminar on the Politics of Migration, London, Monday 25 November 2002

Background facts

Don Flynn is the co-ordinator of the Immigration Rights Project at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants

According to the United Nations, there are currently 175 million people residing in a country other than that in which they were born - a figure which has doubled since 1975. Most live in Europe (56 million), Asia (50 million) and North America (41 million). Sixty per cent live in developed countries, and 40 per cent in under-developed regions.

Of this number, some 20 million of this number were refugees, acknowledged by the UN Commission for Refugees on 1 January 2001. The largest numbers of refugees are in Asia (9 million), Europe (just under 5 million) and Africa (4.2 million).

Refugees enjoy a status which is recognised in international law - principally the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees, ratified by 141 countries, and the 1967 Protocol, ratified by 139, which extends the scope of the Convention.

Economic migrants, on the other hand, are sparsely provided for in international law. The 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, has been ratified by only 19 countries and as such is not regarded as being in force by the UN (a minimum of ratification by 20 countries is required). The 2000 Protocol to suppress and punish trafficking has been ratified by 18 countries, and the 2000 Protocol against smuggling by 17.

Also, according to the UN, forty countries have adopted national policies which are designed to restrict migration - most in the developed, industrialised regions.

With this background it is possible to say, at the very least, that the situation of a growing number of people in the world economy is not satisfactorily provided in international law, and increasingly, less satisfactorily provided for in national law.

The United Kingdom has provided an important example of a country which, despite the rhetoric of being 'welcoming' to migrants and refugees, is currently proceeding in a deeply ambiguous direction. It is worth looking at this in some detail to get a sense of what is driving the immigration debate in one important developed country.:

The UK's record

UK immigration policy runs in a direction established 40 years ago by the first legislation directed against citizens of Commonwealth countries - the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962. Prior to the date of its enactment, the migration of workers from Commonwealth countries had been unrestricted by law. According to researchers, migration from the Caribbean to the UK in the absence of formal immigration controls had developed in response to labour market demand, and ebbed and flowed over the business cycle. The immigration debates which produced the 1962 Act, and its successor 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, were largely rooted in a political response to 'coloured migration' than an assessment of the economic case.

As immigration control policies developed as a political project during the 1960s, a 'border police' approach to immigration emerged which assumed two things. Firstly, that the rights of migrants could be discounted against the perceptions of 'public good' adopted by politicians. Secondly, that it was within the power of politicians to determine who should and should not be admitted to the UK, and to enforce these decisions through a control regime.

This approach was continued in the 1971 Immigration Act- legislation which consolidated the policies set out in the two previous Acts. The Act was based on the view that: