The man who made it OK to talk about immigration

Paul Collier says the worst thing about immigration is that it impoverishes the nations that the migrants come from

16 November 2013

9:00 AM

16 November 2013

9:00 AM

It takes a lot to make the subject of immigration respectable for liberals, at least if you’re pointing out its problematic aspects. But Paul Collier, an Oxford economist specialising in the world’s bottom billion, has, in the 270-odd pages of his new book Exodus, opened up the issue for the left — well, for all comers, actually. Which, for a book suggesting among other things that, left to itself, there is no natural limit to immigration, is quite something.

‘The overwhelming reaction I’ve had,’ he told me, from his Oxford berth at the Centre for the Study of African Economies, ‘is that people thank me for making the subject discussable. I had an email from one man who had been a senior economist at two government departments… and he said that, to his shame, he had been unable to analyse this issue even when he was chairing two committees about it.’

Discussion of immigration has long been taboo among liberals. The subject is conflated with racism and associated fears of inter-ethnic violence. ‘I am concerned to raise the quality of public debate,’ Collier says. ‘There’s been a lot of sloppy and ideological thinking.’

Indeed, when he started on the book, he was warned repeatedly by well-wishers that he shouldn’t, you know, write anything that might start trouble. Though given his benign demeanour and that he sounds like Rowan Williams, it’s hard to think of him as a rabble-rouser. ‘People assumed I was going to be saying what a good thing immigration is and let’s have more of it. That’s the party line.’

So why is Professor Collier in a position to say the unsayable, viz, that while some immigration is good for everyone there is such a thing as too much diversity? One reason is that his approach is broader than that of most pundits. He sees the thing from three perspectives: that of individual migrants (the big winners, he thinks, from immigration); the host community, especially those at the bottom of the pile; and the migrants’ countries of origin.

And it’s this last factor that really exercises him. ‘I started this book from the perspective of what is the impact of all this outward migration from the poorest countries on the poorest countries.’ The effect of that exodus, he thinks, has been disastrous, depriving poor African countries of their brightest and often their most prosperous people — as he says, ‘The poorest can’t afford to leave.’ Indeed, one tough-love approach he favours is that wealthy countries should be generous about granting asylum to those who need it, but should make that asylum time-limited. In other words, once it’s safe for refugees to go home, they should be sent back to help rebuild their conflict-ravaged societies. In fact, one of the confusions he wants to clear up is ‘the failure to distinguish between the idea of helping individuals from poor countries and helping the poor societies themselves’.

That broad approach appeals to both ends of the political spectrum. The professor was rather proud, when I spoke to him, that his book had been favourably reviewed in the Guardian and had, that very day, been given a condensed serialisation in the Mail. Migrants themselves have responded well. ‘I gave a talk at the LSE last week about this,’ he says. ‘It was a big and very favourable audience. But there was a very comical discussion at the end with three young women, one English, the other two Somali. The Englishwoman was terribly bothered by my saying when conflicts are over, refugees should go back. The two young Somali women were saying, yes, of course people should go back.’

An interesting feature of the book is that, as an audit of the benefits and harm of mass migration, it doesn’t obsess about economic outcomes. The professor was unfazed by the findings last week of two studies of migrants to Britain — one showing that those arriving since 2000 had contributed more to public funds than they received back in welfare; the other showing that non-EU (well, non-EEA) arrivals since 1997 had taken more in welfare payments than they’d contributed. In fact he doesn’t really draw conclusions about the economic consequences of migration at all, except to conclude that they’re broadly neutral — though its effects on the availability of things like social housing in high-income countries is another matter.

For him the important consideration isn’t the amount of revenue that migrants add but the effect of large-scale migration on things like trust and generosity in the host society. The issue is whether too much diversity — and he insists he’s talking about culture, not race — takes away our fellow feeling for each other. His broad conclusion is that migration does diminish levels of trust in the host society. Does that affect the indigenous poor more than the middle classes? ‘In the sense that the poor benefit most from generosity, which too much diversity undermines,’ he says, ‘yes.’

He doesn’t shy away from policy recommendations. One is that wealthy countries should be much less generous in their provision for family reunions for migrants; the freedom to bring spouses here only works for indigenous residents because it’s rarely used and it effectively limits the space available for other would-be migrants. Another is that we should be far more generous in admitting students, on the basis that they return and benefit their countries of origin. ‘It’s not just what they learn here; it’s the values they acquire,’ he says. He thinks there are fairly straightforward ways to ensure that the right is not abused: if universities were made financially liable for students who abscond, for instance. A third is that migrants should not be privileged ahead of others by making the decision to get on a boat to Lampedusa. ‘We have to make sure it’s not worth their while to put themselves in the hands of some criminal in Tunisia,’ he says.

But the real effect of his book is that he’s made migration discussable. ‘It was rather moving,’ he said. ‘The other day a man came up to me and said that because of my book it has, for the first time, been possible for him and his sister to discuss this subject. And they’re both bright, well-educated people.’ After decades of Brits skirting uneasily round the subject, it’s probably time we all did.

Exodus, Paul Collier, Allen Lane, £20.

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