Xenophobia and immigration – a thought experiment

Why it is probably xenophobic to be concerned about the impact of migration on public services and the housing and labour markets.

Net migration figures have been the focus of much of what passed for ‘debate’ in the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, and public concern about them, fanned mendaciously by the media, has clearly contributed to the result. The UK’s population is currently approximately 65 million. In the period between 2010 and 2015 it grew by an average of 0.63% per year. That places it about half-way down the league table of population change among wealthy countries (see below). In other words, population change in the UK is not out of kilter with other so-called advanced economies. Norway, Switzerland and Singapore, which have been touted by some on the Leave side as models for a post-Brexit UK have higher rates of population growth than Britain.

Population change comprises net migration and the change due to  births and deaths in the existing population. The balance between these components varies each year. In the year to mid-2014 net migration contributed 53% and births and deaths contributed 46% to population growth.

Now imagine a situation in which net migration to the UK is zero, but population growth is still 0.63% per year because of births and deaths. Over time, that would mean similar implications for public services, housing, labour supply etc. (In the short term the mix of implications would be different because of age differences.)

What, I wonder, would those who have been claiming the country can’t cope with current levels of net migration say in those circumstances? Would they argue for compulsory contraception? Transportation of the ‘excess’ population to countries with falling populations? Would the government consider introducing a China-style one child policy? Worse?

Presumably not (though the recent level of political debate in the UK makes anything seem possible). And if not, then surely it is evident that the concerns expressed about pressures on public services, housing, jobs and so on are not only because there are more people, but because some of the people are from elsewhere – in other words they are, by definition, xenophobic.

It is not xenophobic to be concerned about the social and economic impact of population growth, provided you hold those concerns regardless of the source of the change. If you are only concerned about the element of population growth that is due to net migration, then you’re probably xenophobic.

The impact of population change on public services and the labour market must be addressed, but the roots causes are austerity policies, funding cuts, a dysfunctional housing market and exploitative employment practices, not migration.

Twenty-four wealthiest countries by per capita GDP (measured at PPP) for 2011-2014, ranked according to their average annual population growth rates 2010-2015. List excludes petroleum economies and off-shore tax havens. Sources: World Bank (GDP); United Nations (population).

Luxembourg 2.21%
Singapore 1.97%
Israel 1.66%
Australia 1.57%
Norway 1.27%
Switzerland 1.16%
Canada 1.04%
Sweden 0.83%
United States 0.75%
New Zealand 0.72%
Iceland 0.70%
Belgium 0.66%
United Kingdom 0.63%
Finland 0.50%
South Korea 0.48%
France 0.45%
Denmark 0.42%
Austria 0.36%
Netherlands 0.35%
Ireland 0.31%
Italy 0.07%
Germany 0.06%
Japan -0.12%
Spain -0.21%






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