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By Philippe Legrain 3 COMMENTS

It is time that Europe’s politicians admitted to voters that governments cannot stop people moving across borders. Despite efforts to build a Fortress Europe, more than a million foreigners bypass its defences each year: some enter covertly; most overstay their visas and work illicitly. While draconian policies do curb migration somewhat, they mostly drive it underground.

That creates huge costs: a humanitarian crisis, with thousands drowning each year trying to reach Europe and thousands more detained; the soaring expense of border controls and bureaucracy; a criminalised people-smuggling industry; an expanding shadow economy, where illegal migrants are vulnerable to exploitation, labour laws are broken and taxes go unpaid; mistrust of politicians who cannot fulfil promises to halt immigration; corroded perceptions of immigrants as law-breakers rather than enterprising people; and the mistreatment of refugees to deter people who want to work from applying for asylum, besmirching our commitment to help those fleeing terror.

These problems are blamed on immigrants, but they are actually due to our immigration controls. Far from protecting society, they undermine law and order, just as Prohibition did more damage to America than drinking ever has. Pragmatic governments ought to legalise and regulate migration instead.

All the more so, since immigrants are not an invading army, but mostly people seeking a better life who are drawn to Europe by the huge demand for workers for low-end jobs which our increasingly well-educated and comfortable citizens do not want. The only way to reconcile aspirations to opportunity for all with the reality of drudgery for some is via immigration.

Migration’s benefits are akin to trade’s. Filipino care workers, Congolese cleaners and Brazilian bar staff are simply service providers who ply their trade abroad – and just as it is often cheaper and mutually beneficial to buy IT services from India, it often makes sense to import menial services that are delivered on the spot.

Moreover, because newcomers are more willing to move to where the jobs are, and to shift jobs as conditions change, they make the economy more flexible and boost growth as Britain’s recent experience shows. And just as women entering the workforce did not cost men jobs, nor do immigrants: they create jobs as they spend wages. Far from competing with native workers, immigrants often complement them. A foreign child minder may enable a doctor to return to work, where hard-working foreign nurses and cleaners enhance her productivity.

Immigrants’ diversity boosts innovation because foreigners with different perspectives and greater drive can help solve problems better. Consider Silicon Valley: Intel, Google and Ebay were all co-founded by immigrants. As China catches up, Europe must open up to foreigners to stay ahead.

Those who claim that tougher measures could stop immigration are delusive. Even if Europe became a police state, its borders would be permeable. Even if the EU built a wall along its vast eastern border, deployed an armada to patrol its southern shores, searched every arriving vehicle and vessel, denied people from developing countries visas, migrants would get through: documents can be forged, people smuggled, officials bribed.

If open borders are politically unacceptable, Europe should create a legal route for people from developing nations to come and work, regulated through an extra payroll tax on foreign workers. This would be transparent and flexible, raise revenue that would highlight migrants’ contribution to society, and give companies an ­incentive to hire, or train, domestic staff.

Even if set relatively high, it would undercut people smugglers and slash illegal immigration. Who would risk death, exploitation or deportation if they could come to work within the law by paying an extra tax? And if foreigners could come and go freely, many would stay only temporarily, since most do not want to leave home for ever. Over time, the tax could be gradually lowered – or raised again if migration led to unexpected problems.

Politicians should have the courage to stop fighting an unwinnable war. Treating immigration as an opportunity, not a threat, would enhance its benefits and mitigate its costs. ­London’s cosmopolitan dynamism shows how a more open Europe could thrive.

Posted 24 Apr 2007 in Published articles
  1. Iiro says:

    Interesting idea, thank you for that. Still, it is not that simple. It was just yesterday that Finnish authorities had to conclude that a vast majority of the foreign rental labor in Finland had not announced themselves to the tax authorities as requested by the law. If there is an extra tax, the incentive to avoid the taxes completely to do “gray market” just gets higher.
    That said, and with the current trouble to find laborers in Finland to open positions, there is a need of migrant workers. I can easily see that in my hometown Helsinki, where a growing share of cleaning personnel, coach drivers and service people appear to be originated from other continents.
    But, and this is a huge but, there is a link between public security and shared value base. The freedoms we enjoy are based on the fact that the population accepts these freedoms (e.g., freedom of speech or faith). With the current flow of immigrants we have a growing number of people who do not always share our perspective to these freedoms, as could be seen in the infamous muhammed cartoon controversy.
    If there is a large enough group of (e.g., immigrant) people within a state who violently oppose freedom of speech, there is no number of policemen in the streets that could make it safe to speak freely. This is the basis of xenophobia that I can understand, even if I cannot agree with it in all aspects. This effective curb on freedom of speech has been visible in the last few years in the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and many other countries – also in that of my own.

  2. vincent says:

    Not surprisingly, I agree with every aspect of this article, except the modality of the tax: as liro says, an additional payrol tax creates incentives to “gray market”, both from the employer and the migrant.
    But the principle is OK. I would favor a choice, for the immigrant, between an “establishment tax” or a “carency delay” : paying the “establisht tax” gives the immigrant access to public services (schools, hospitals, and so on…) that have been paid by established people. If the immigrant can’t afford paying this tax, his access to theses services (or to the subsidies allowing him to purchase these services on a private market) will be delayed by the necessary time, for him, to pay enough taxes (either consumption taxes, or revenue taxes) to open his right to access these services. // Of course, he would be granted an access to police services if his life or property was harmed, from the first second of presence on our soil (in my case, french soil, but the issue is the same than yours).
    In every case, the immigrant has an incentive to declare its presence to authorities: if he pays the entry tax, or he he wants to start the countdown towards access to state provided services.
    @ liro, Problem of “undemocratic immigration”:
    At the moment the immigrant declares its presence and his intention to establish, he could be mandated to sign a contract where his total respect and tolerance to our principles of individual freedom would be stipulated, and if he breaks its commitment by acting concretely against these liberties, he would be sent back to his origin country, and blacklisted.
    so people who, despite these dispositions, try to establish in the country without declaring himself could be considered as a person who doesn’t want to abide our principles of mutual respect, and thus be treated as a foe invader, with every risk associated to this status.
    This would not prevent any person to come in with bad intentions against our civilization -even by signing the contract- but it would ease integration of most newcomers without such views, and simultaneously reduce the ability, for anti-freedom integrists, to build strong support and networks for their anti-western civilization agenda.
    (Hope my ‘not so fluent’ english makes my view understandable enough…)

  3. Jose says:

    Migrant tax would stop illegal entrants !! Wowzer !!
    Gentlemen, the illegal migrant do not pay anything because they are anyway here illegally.
    Further, I don’t understand why tax non EU Migrants. They enter on VISA and pay Income tax and NI just like any normal UK citizen. They are NOT entitled to any benefits. Then why further tax them ???
    If the govt wants money, ask for it, don’t make stupid excuses !!!
    Stupid reasons by Govt. ministers and equally stupid arguments posed by normal public supporting such motives.
    Look at the home office and National statistics websites. Use your brain and you will find that it is the within EU migrants which are causing the pressure.

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