Don't be fooled: the best immigrants are not always the most 'skilled'

'Is it moral to use our might to encourage a brain drain from countries that are still so impoverished?'
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The Independent Online

One of the most memorable moments for me on Holocaust Memorial Day was the appearance of Kemal Pervanic, the once-emaciated Bosnian Muslim who appeared in the media, standing behind barbed wire in the Serb-built Omarska concentration camp. He spoke evocatively in English about what he had been made to suffer, but this was not the same man who had been broken by starvation and humiliation. His smart suit, beautifully groomed long hair and supreme confidence symbolised the vital reclamation of a lost life. He came here in 1993, and is now a science graduate with an assured future. We, as a nation, gave him that future, by letting him come here as a refugee. It is what we used to do.

One of the most memorable moments for me on Holocaust Memorial Day was the appearance of Kemal Pervanic, the once-emaciated Bosnian Muslim who appeared in the media, standing behind barbed wire in the Serb-built Omarska concentration camp. He spoke evocatively in English about what he had been made to suffer, but this was not the same man who had been broken by starvation and humiliation. His smart suit, beautifully groomed long hair and supreme confidence symbolised the vital reclamation of a lost life. He came here in 1993, and is now a science graduate with an assured future. We, as a nation, gave him that future, by letting him come here as a refugee. It is what we used to do.

Thousands of South Africans fleeing apartheid were similarly sheltered and given opportunities. Today, many are in top jobs in South Africa and they are finding productive ways of paying this country back for the gracious and generous way they were treated. The mean-minded among us so often forget the importance of this reciprocity and the reputation that Britain - in many ways, justifiably - built up after the war. The reason so many more asylum-seekers and economic migrants are coming here is not because the country is a "soft touch" but because people can see what immigrants have accomplished here in spite of racism. Just compare the lives of migrants in Britain with those in Germany and France.

Staggering numbers of non-indigenous Britons are home-owners and well settled into middle-class lives. What's more, we have massively influenced the national character of this country. No other European countries can match this achievement; as a pro-European, I say this without any jingoism or arrogance. This is what the anti-immigration Tories do not have the wit to understand. It is not the palatial council flat and fat giro cheque, but Blighty's good name as a land of opportunity that draws those with fiery ambitions and hopeless lives. And in time, many give the country much more than they ever take from it.

But, I hear you say, I am only saying this because of self-interest. Yes, can't deny that. But hark, a new Home Office report, "Migration, an economic and social analysis" , confirms these assertions.

Levels of entrepreneurship and self-employment are "higher among migrants in the UK than elsewhere in Europe... [migrants] appear to perform well in the UK labour market compared to other EU countries." Unemployment rates for migrants in the UK is about 6 per cent. In France, it is 31 per cent.

The report also exposes the fallacy that there is a fixed number of jobs, some of which would be snatched away by migrants. As more migrants are of working age, the fiscal impact of recent migration "is likely to be positive". There are all those unquantifiable benefits, too, in sports, the arts, pop music, food - all of which would have withered on the vine without the new energy brought in by migrants and developed by their offspring on this soil. Zadie Smith and Sir Magdi Yacoub could not have been transplanted from elsewhere. They are a product of the searing and creative interactions and exchanges that migration forces both on those who move and the inhabitants of the places they move to.

Can you imagine special work permits to bring in good novelists and artists, or even pioneer scientists, because politicians and officials decide that the country "needs" them? Yet this is the thrust of new government thinking on immigration.

Ministers realise that an ageing population and economic changes will soon force them to go shopping for immigrants once more. They also know that they are going to have huge problems getting the British public to accept this because, for half a century, immigration has been described as a problem that can never have enough controls and regulations.

Politicians are throttled by their own propaganda. So they try to sell the idea of targeting IT specialists, nurses and teachers, and importing them from countries such as India. This could begin a shift in attitudes towards immigration and is great for those individuals who want to emigrate. But is it moral to use our money and might to encourage a brain-drain from countries that are still so unequal and impoverished? These people trained in countries that have few resources. Are we going to pay the national governments for this before we steal their experts?

And can we really pretend that we are developing a more positive immigration policy when we are so unforgiving of those who are seeking to do with their lives what we are choosing to do as a nation, namely improving their quality of life?

If, in a globalised world, we plunder the world for markets and highly desirable talent, by what right do we then deny those in impoverished and troubled countries to plunder our world for jobs and a decent future? And even worse, how does this then sit with merciless actions against asylum- seekers, thousands of whom are being deported and sent back into very dangerous situations?

The senseless and heartless message is that IT experts that we pick are brilliantly good for us, but self-motivated immigrants and refugees, who might become brilliant IT experts, are a disaster. For proof, read what Tony Blair wrote this weekend. He is co-operating with his Italian counterpart, Giuliano Amato, to stop those trafficking in illegal immigrants by building a stronger barrier around the western Balkans. He wants a debate: "[which] should focus, not only on the repression of criminal activity connected with immigration, but also on supporting appropriate opportunities where in the national interest, for legal immigration into a diverse and tolerant society."

By attacking those vile people who deal in human cargo, Blair is being disingenuous. The merchants are wicked. But why do they get business? Because there is no legitimate way in for people who simply want a chance to make good. Our government is not imaginative, brave or ethical in the way it is dealing with immigration. The US takes greater risks, is more open and benefits much more from its immigration policies. We could take a lead from the US by, for example, assigning quotas to different countries, and using a lottery to fill them.

I believe in controlled immigration that takes into account both what our country needs and the needs of those who have nothing but their dreams. This is a small country, I accept that. But people like Kemal Pervanic should be proof that the most crushed migrant can grow roots, blossom and enrich the whole landscape, particularly in this green and pleasant land.

y-alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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