28 November 2016

The French Ambassador to the UK gave voice to the feelings of many immigrant populations in Britain when she last month described to the House of Lords’ EU Justice Sub-Committee the views of French citizens living in London regarding the UK: “A success story for dynamism and tolerance of others.” However, she went on to explain how events since the referendum have shaken this feeling of security, with examples of hostility on public transport and xenophobic abuse tallying with headline Home Office figures that report a 41% year-on-year increase in incidences of hate-crime in the month following the vote.

Recent data suggests we must maintain a sense of perspective

These are not the hallmarks of the open, inclusive society that the UK has always been, and they have been rightly condemned across the board. As the UK government seeks to counter perceptions that the Brexit vote was a rejection of pluralism and openness, people remain concerned that the country is in the grip of a new nativism. But we must maintain a sense of perspective. The UK has a very good track-record for welcoming and integrating immigrants who choose to build new lives here, and this should be constantly emphasised within the debate over the UK’s new direction following the Brexit vote.

A timely Eurostat survey records the proportion of the immigrant and the native populations who gain tertiary qualifications and are in employment across European countries. The striking point as far as integration is concerned is how similar and even how much better the outcomes are for immigrants compared to the native population in the UK.

On education, first-generation immigrants to the UK are relatively well-qualified in the first place, with the second highest rate of degree-level education in the survey, so it may not be fair to claim that advantages flowing through to the second-generation are all the result of UK policy. Nevertheless, 46.8% of second-generation migrants in the UK gain tertiary qualifications compared to 37.4% of the native population.

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Only four countries in the survey do better than the UK’s 9.4 percentage-point (ppt) immigrant out-performance, and none of them is a country of comparable economic stature such as France, Germany or Italy, or one with a similar immigration profile as defined by the OECD’s 2015 integration report such as Switzerland or Luxembourg.

In the labour market, the Eurostat figures show employment rates for first and second-generation immigrants in the UK only 7.8 and 1.6 ppts below that of the native population. This is a smaller gap in both cases than in Germany, Switzerland and France amongst others, with the latter showing the second largest gap in employment for first generation migrants compared to the native-born at -17.3 ppt.

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The OECD report gives historical endorsement to this positive picture of UK immigrant integration into the labour market. It shows that in the UK long-term unemployment levels for immigrants decreased relative to levels in the native population through the 2008 financial crisis, going from a gap of -0.1 ppt in 2007 to -5.5 ppt in 2013. This means that, despite the crash, the UK labour market did not become any less welcoming for immigrants, in fact it became more so. Interestingly, Germany started with the same gap of -0.1 ppt in 2007, but the figures there went into reverse.

By 2013, long-term unemployment for immigrants in Germany was 2.7 ppt higher than for the native population, with figures for France and Switzerland +7.6 ppt and +13.1 ppt respectively.

Incidentally, the UK also compares positively with well-established ‘countries of migration’ outside Europe, including the United States on +2.8 ppt, Canada on +3.9 ppt, and Australia on -2.2 ppt.

Conclusions

Why is all this important? As mentioned, there are many measures of integration, and a host country cannot take credit for every positive outcome in an individual immigrant’s life once they put down roots, as it takes exceptional commitment and skills to arrive and thrive in a new country compared to the advantages of being born there.

There is always more that can be done to foster a healthy debate and ensure successful integration, but the fact that the UK performs comparatively well on key long-term integration indicators is testament to the enduring attitude of individual tolerance and systemic flexibility that has characterised the country down the years and has not been altered simply because the UK is leaving the EU.

There will certainly be changes to immigration and integration policies as a result of Brexit, but this need not alter the picture of the UK as a leading destination for migrant outcomes that is still open to the world.