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24 February 2005

Migration and Development

I begin by complimenting the three hon. Members who have spoken on their excellent contributions. The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), the Chairman of the Select Committee, made tireless efforts throughout the gathering of evidence and the production of what is an excellent report. The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Tony Worthington) mentioned the work that he continues to do in Somaliland. We would be forgiven for forgetting that he was, in fact, kidnapped on one visit to Somaliland. As ever, the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) made an important point when he said that the standard of debate that we have heard today will not be replayed in the press and the media throughout the country. Members of the Select Committee and other hon. Members must ensure that the press have access to this excellent report, so that they cannot say that they do not know the facts.

I want to go further than the hon. Member for Buckingham. He suggested that the parties get together after the election to work on a joint approach to the subject. It is too late. We should not get down into the gutter before the election. The public will have more respect for a party that sticks, after the election, to what it said before the election. If a spokesman of a party joins in a debate of the sort that has been criticised today—I hope that my party does not join in such a debate—it is incumbent on us all to draw attention to the report. We should be raising our game before the election, so that work can continue after the election.

Mr. Bercow : I am rightly rebuked for the modesty of my ambition. I was trying to look ahead to the weeks, months and years that will follow. However, in all seriousness, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: from this day forward, the debate should be characterised by an observation of facts and an avoidance of prejudice.

John Barrett : I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comment.

As we know, migration has always played an important role in the development of many countries and many people. We are examining the Select Committee report and the Government's response to it, but it is worth taking a minute to consider the role that migration has played in development and poverty reduction. In recent and more distant history, we have witnessed great population shifts for various reasons. Recently, that has happened because of famine and drought in Africa. However, population shifts have been caused by opportunity. People left Ireland for the United States. People emigrated to Australia and the Commonwealth through the assisted passage scheme.

The hon. Gentleman told us about the onion boat that brought his grandparents to this country. As a young couple in the 1950s, my parents left the United Kingdom on the assisted passage scheme and emigrated to Australia. For £10, they left for new opportunities and a new life in Australia, where I was born. Due to various circumstances, I might not have been here today, but when I was a young child my parents decided to return to Scotland.

Such matters are interesting. The fact that Scots have travelled throughout the world, whether to take up employment in the medical profession, banking or other sectors, has had a major impact. At the same time, the population of Scotland is falling. In fact, one of the Scottish Parliament's major initiatives is to encourage people to come to Scotland. The population of Scotland is expected by 2009 to have fallen below 5 million for the first time ever. It has become clear that immigration is one of the ways in which Scotland must tackle that problem. When asked recently what the major problems facing Scotland were, the First Minister said that decreasing population was a key issue and that we had to attract people with the necessary skills to our country.

We have heard about the report being unanimous. It is interesting that, when we consider problems, things are often clear. For example, when we have considered famine, drought, HIV and so on, we have found that they are obviously bad. When we consider migration, however, we find that it is neither good nor bad; it is a challenge and opportunity, as other hon. Members have said.

Some of the most unsettling aspects of migration arise when it is forced and involves the vulnerable—often, women and children—sometimes for the worst of all reasons, such as for work in the sex industry. On the BBC news website today, there is coverage of one of the worst possible aspects of migration: pregnant mothers migrating to sell their newborn children. One wonders what has happened to the world when we read that such things are happening. The headline was "Bulgaria's disturbing baby market". Young pregnant mothers travel from Bulgaria to Greece to sell their newborn babies. However, in one of the two cases described on the BBC website, the child was born with disabilities and the prospective adoptive family did not want him. 
 
That is one of the most despicable aspects of migration, but the article says:

"It is hard to investigate and statistics are difficult to get hold of."

I will return to that issue. It is hard to pinpoint exact statistics or to determine the precise scale of the problem, whether it is drug trafficking or illegal migration.
As the Chairman of the Select Committee said, an excellent aspect of the report was that it debunked many common myths, for example, about the tidal wave of migrants, about the poorest flooding into this country and about migration being just a brain drain. There is not enough time to go into the many aspects of the report, but now when people raise immigration and asylum seekers with me, I will send the report to them. Although it does not deal specifically with asylum in great detail, it is well worth reading.

My constituency is predominantly white European, but people have contacted me to ask what to do about the tidal wave of migrants coming into the country. They do so because of the view in the press that immigrants and asylum seekers are one and the same. In the general public's mind, the two are regarded as one body of people.

As has been said, patterns of migration have remained much the same for the past 30 years. Between 2 and 3 per cent. of the world's population have been involved, although the numbers are growing as the world's population grows. Where migrants live is detailed on page 16 of the report. The top 10 recipient countries are set out and the UK does not feature among them. We are not talking about just a north-south flow. The reasons are many and varied. Migration is voluntary and forced, and there are push and pull factors.

Migration is an option for everyone except the poorest of the poor. We could emigrate at some time in life if we wanted to, but the poorest of the poor are basically stuck at the bottom of the heap. There is a new concept, detailed on page 20, which is called the migration hump. That explains exactly how people have to get off the bottom of the economic ladder before they have the resources to move. Once people get beyond a certain point in life and become relatively affluent, there is no need to go off seeking better fortunes elsewhere.

There is little hard evidence on migration and development, however. Again, that is a good reason for the report's publication. I noticed that in their response the Government accept that there is a room for improvement, so that people can get the facts and deal with the challenges ahead. I look forward to the Minister's response and hope that there are other ways to gather detailed statistics.

We have heard much about the impact on our health system and those of other countries. The hon. Member for Banbury recalled our visit to a hospital in Malawi. This month, trained midwives from the New Royal infirmary in Edinburgh are going to the same hospital to teach its midwives aspects of critical care, so that they can deal with high-risk births. The irony is that, once trained, those midwives may find that their opportunities elsewhere increase. As midwives with standard training, they may or may not stay where they are, but with expert training, they might move not to the United Kingdom or the United States, but to South Africa. There is a knock-on effect throughout the world: we are recruiting people from South Africa, and South Africa is recruiting workers from other, less developed countries.

The NHS, in evidence sessions, could not say exactly how many nurses from developing countries were working in the UK, but those figures must be able to be gathered. As I said, there are similar problems with South Africa attracting nurses from poorer countries. Although we have agreed a code of practice, there is much work to be done. The current situation is not tenable. That was brought home to me recently when I visited a nursing home in my constituency. Only one of the care assistants was from Scotland. Most came from eastern Europe.

I fear that the worst aspect of migration is trafficking, smuggling and illegal migration. I am talking about people exploiting the most vulnerable and making large profits. Their activities often involve deception and forced sexual exploitation of the most vulnerable—women and children. It is estimated that 500,000 people a year are smuggled into western Europe, and 2 million people globally. In south-east Asia, the prostitution industry and sex tourism are two of the worst aspects. I am pleased to know that the Government have taken a tough line on those from the UK who have travelled abroad to abuse others through the sex industry.

Oxfam has said that tightening restrictions in the EU could lead to more trafficking. The way forward is an open and transparent system, especially for short-term or seasonal workers, who might be happier to come to this country for a short time if they found out that they could easily go back. The pull that someone's homeland has is amazing. Hon. Members have referred to Somaliland and other pretty well devastated areas, but it is amazing how much people want to go back to their homeland, either during their working life or after they have retired. They may say that their homeland is where they would like to end their days. We must have an open system whereby there is a freer flow for legal migrants.

I agree that refugees, asylum seekers and migrants are treated as one mass. The Select Committee accepts what the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said—those groups must be differentiated. Refugees and economic migrants have different reasons for moving. We must be able to offer a safe haven for people whose lives are genuinely threatened. Their situation is different from that of someone who decides arbitrarily to come to this country or to go to the US or another country.

We have seen recent migrant flows in Darfur in southern Sudan. We have recently visited refugee camps of more than 140,000 people and witnessed the impact that those people have had on local resources—food, markets and water. That movement of people internally in some of the most deprived nations of the world is happening as we speak. The report and the Government's response go a long way towards keeping this important item on the agenda. However, it is important that we, as parliamentarians, do not get dragged into the gutter as we approach the general election. The facts are clear for the UK. There are about three refugees per 1,000 of population; in Georgia the figure is 51 per 1,000 and in Liberia it is 87. There are 100,000 Afghan refugees in the EU, compared with 1.4 million in Iran and 2 million in Pakistan.

Many people in this country may feel that we do too much for immigrants or refugees, but the developing world is often of the view that we do not do enough or take our fair share. The figures in the report show that a lot of refugees are not in the richest countries of the world. It has been mentioned that people are open to exploitation by gangmasters, and the way that the control of gangmasters has been dealt with in recent legislation is to the credit of the Government.

I want to touch briefly on remittances. The potential is great. We have heard examples about the scale of remittances—some £93  billion-plus in formal transfers, which exceeds the flow of aid to developing countries. What we must do in this country, working with the international banking sectors, is ensure that transaction costs are reduced. A relatively large chunk of the money can disappear in fees or transaction costs. Many migrants have no bank accounts, and sometimes the places where they try to send their money have no banking system. We must do what we can to make remittances work for poverty reduction.

There is general acceptance that remittances will never lead to massive poverty reduction, but they can make a positive contribution either locally, through a house construction perhaps, or generally through the flow of capital into areas that have relatively low average incomes. Remittances have an important part to play, and I was pleased to find out that there is a team in the Department for International Development looking at financial sector reform and banking systems.

The Government's response to the report was interesting. They have accepted an awful lot of what it suggested and that there is still some distance to go. There is no doubt that a lot of good work has been done. To give credit where it is due, DFID is involved in programmes such as the training of doctors and nurses in Malawi. It has also provided a substantial sum of money. However, there is no point in training doctors and nurses over there if they just come here without putting anything back into their country of origin. We must develop systems, so that there can be a win-win situation. If our health service gains their expertise while they increase their skills and either send remittances back or return to work in their country's health sector, both the countries and the doctor or nurse can benefit. DFID is also involved in a number of livelihood programmes associated with internal migration in countries such as India.

Looking to the future, our presidency of the EU and G8 gives us an excellent opportunity to ensure that we accept the challenges and stand up to be counted. We read nonsensical stories in the press—the story of the hard-working immigrant is not one that they want to see. They want stories about immigrants and/or asylum seekers abusing the system, taking money that they are not entitled to or sneaking into the country.

The Government have done a lot of good work. I hope that whichever party is elected—I make no assumptions about that; Labour and the Conservatives hope to be elected and the Liberal Democrats are very optimistic—we ensure that, when immigration and migration is on the agenda, our standards do not fall to the level that we sometimes see. We must keep the standard of debate as high as it has been this afternoon.

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This website was established while I was a Member of Parliament. The site content is being kept online as a source of information, but all forms / email have been disabled.