16 January 2004 - 18 January 2004

Charity or self-interest: motives underlying our approaches to refugees and immigrants

Chair: The Honorable Frederick D Barton

Over the weekend of 16-18 January, we tackled the emotive issue of refugees and immigrant flows in a modern globalised world.  We were fortunate to have round the table participants from a wide variety of countries and backgrounds including policy makers and practitioners.  Our Chairman, on the basis of his long experience in this field, in particular with UNHCR, was able to place our discussions in an international context.

Before looking in detail at specific questions to do with immigration and refugee flows, we looked at some of the underlying issues which had, in recent years, made this such a politically sensitive issue.

We were told that this subject was so charged because it dealt with the basic desire of people to better their lives.  These wishes frequently collided with the expectations of citizens of the developed countries to have privileged access to social goods, sometimes described as welfare nationalism.  Reactions against so-called “free riding”, seen as taking advantage of the system, were particularly strong.  We recognised, however, that distributional issues were difficult to measure and that the cultural impact of immigration was even more so.  From the public point of view, we were told, perceptions were often the reality and some politicians felt that they had a democratic duty to reflect that.   Unless immigration was seen as beneficial, the results could be disastrous.  Governments were, however, criticised for ducking an open debate.  In many countries asylum seekers had become demonised in popular and press imagination.  The fact was that attempts by Governments to insulate their countries completely from immigration had proved unsuccessful.  The result had been to drive it underground where, it was estimated, criminal groups now carried on an international business worth many billions of dollars. This had also resulted in abuse of the asylum system to the extent that it often ceased to protect those in most need of it.  On the other hand, it was argued, migration had been an enormous benefit to both the receiving and to the sending countries.  Canada was held to be an example of a country where orderly migration had proved to be both beneficial and popular. 

We touched on two other questions which were to run through our discussions:  the need, as some saw it, for Governments to have a clear immigration policy which they were prepared to explain and defend publicly;  and whether it was desirable to treat immigration and asylum separately since some feared that concerns about the latter were undermining support for the former. 

Before embarking on a more detailed look at what might be termed “wanted” migration, “unwanted” migration and possible future policy we sought to clarify some of the terms we were using.  The first distinction drawn was between migration and immigration.  Migration had occurred throughout human history.  Immigration was seen as entry into a specific country at the wish of the immigrant and preferably with the consent of the country concerned, to the mutual benefit of both.  “Unwanted” immigration was claimed to be an oxymoron.  Someone, usually an employer, wanted the immigrant, even if the state might not.  A better term might be “irregular” immigrants.  Immigrants were seen as long term stayers who would probably become fellow citizens.  On the other hand refugees and asylum seekers were often seen as short term migrants and, unfortunately, asylum had now almost universally become a term of disparagement.  Some pointed out that asylum was nevertheless an honourable status with a long and valued history. 

We looked at wanted migration almost exclusively from the point of view of movements from developing to developed countries (South/North) while acknowledging that movements between developing countries (South/South) were usually much greater.  The fact was that all industrial countries had become countries of immigration in which Governments had accepted cultural diversity in the population and were expected to play a significant role in managing that diversity.  However, because of historical, cultural and other factors Governments and societies reacted differently to immigration.  No single government policy was thought likely to resolve all the issues which were bound to arise.  A number of interlinked policies would be required to deal with the multiplicity of objectives among those involved. 

We considered the 1951 Geneva Convention and thought that, notwithstanding its defects in contemporary conditions, no clear alternative existed.  There were other legal instruments which were also influential.  In the EU, the right to freedom of movement in all member states, and the European Convention on Human Rights had also played important roles.  Free movement within the EU was thought to represent a major success for immigration policy which would be extended on 1 May with accession of ten new member states.  It was also thought to be instructive about the wider question of “managed migration”.  If that is what we wanted then, as in the EU, multilateral cooperation would be needed. 

We looked at the population projections in the recent Cheney Report which indicated that from 2010 to 2020 the working population in the EU could be expected to decline by 1 million.  The level of net immigration to compensate for such a decline appeared to be unacceptable in terms of the social cohesion of the countries concerned.    Alternatively, to support the present level of GDP per capita, labour productivity would have to rise by 3% per annum.  One way of alleviating the problem might be to accept a higher number of workers on temporary visas.  Others suggested that the more open a society was to short term workers the more likely they would be to leave in the knowledge that they, or their successors, would be able to return in the future.  Realistically, however, some temporary workers would almost certainly stay on.  Those systems which had attempted a complete ban on temporary workers from staying, had usually failed.  Overall, we thought that immigration might be part of the solution but it was not the complete answer.  Economic development on a global basis would require more immigration.  We needed to plan for that.

Some participants were strongly of the view that attitudes to “irregular” immigration were affected predominantly by its scale and pace.  If the British Home Office’s current projections of a net increase of 2 million immigrants over the next ten years was borne out, there could well be a public reaction.  People would be more open to legal immigration if they felt that illegal movements were under control.  The comment was made that Canada, which had an outstanding record of public support for its immigration policy, had succeeded in absorbing successive waves of migrants without much difficulty.  But the pressure was now constant and intense without gaps between the waves.  It would, for example, take more than six years simply to process the hundreds of thousands of outstanding applications at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing.  In the meantime, Canada’s need for highly qualified immigrants had declined as educational standards had risen to the point where a surplus of qualified people looking for jobs seemed imminent.  Asylum, claimed a participant with long experience in this field was another issue.  The rules currently in force in most countries were so structured that, in order to make a valid claim, there was virtually a “duty of mendacity” on the claimants who normally had to flee their own country before making an application.  To which the counter argument was made that on arrival in the receiving country it was almost impossible to return unqualified claimants.  In some cases the appeal process had gone on for sixteen years with the result that the system was running out of control. 

It was suggested that managed migration was, in effect, an attempt to manage a market.  Managing meant introducing some restrictions.  These were probably necessary in order to maintain confidence in the receiving societies that their Governments were in control and that their interests would also be given due weight.  Among the restrictions suggested were the introduction of ID cards as evidence of regular status after admission.  Those of us from Continental Europe claimed that ID cards made it much more difficult to remain in a society without permission.  Embarkation checks and penal sanctions against both traffickers as well as employers of irregular labour, were also advocated.  After such restrictions were in place, amnesties for “irregulars” already in the country were suggested.  For others, voluntary return, possibly on the Swiss model for Kosovar refugees which had included sending Swiss officials to Kosovo to prepare for their return and to provide building materials etc, might also help.  In considering the causes of migration, we touched on a number of factors, some obvious, others less so.  Although claiming no expertise as development specialists, the thought was expressed that there had to be a linkage between 20% of the global population having access to 80% of its resources and 80% having access to only 20%.  On this analysis it was thought that development policies aimed at building human capacity in the poorest countries together with increased access for their goods to markets in developed countries might reduce the flow of immigrants.  Others thought that this was unlikely since the ten countries from which most immigrants came were not the same as the ten countries with the lowest GDP per capita.  Indeed, it was often the case that the fastest developing countries were also those from which most migrants came.  There also appeared to be little linkage between increasing resettlement opportunities and reductions in asylum numbers.  This, suggested one participant, pointed to a need for there to be a forum for discussing these questions between the developed and developing countries. 

In the course of this discussion, we came across one of the major differences in attitude between the USA and most other countries.  Where, for European states, the difficulty appeared to be with the number of people claiming asylum, in the USA the question of asylum was scarcely an issue.  In the USA the problem was the level of illegal migrants – one in eight of the population of New York City, we were told.  Most illegal migration into the USA came across the land borders and was to join existing friends or families.  Since welfare systems on the European pattern did not exist there was no resentment in the USA that public funds were being abused and the need for seasonal workers was generally acknowledged.  The reformed 1995 Immigration Act allowed the US authorities to detain illegal entrants while their cases were adjudicated which might take 2/3 years.  Security considerations since 9/11 had, however, highlighted the problem of not knowing who was in the country at any one time. 

This took us to a discussion of the compatibility of high levels of asylum seekers or immigration from low skilled rural communities into countries with highly developed welfare systems.  In countries like Sweden or Denmark there appeared to be increasing levels of segregation among recent immigrants/refugees from such backgrounds.  This, we were told, was the result of the disappearance of low wage, low skill jobs from such economies.  But habits of social support among these immigrant communities meant that marriages were frequently arranged with members of their home countries who then came to live in the host country and tended to increase the pool of those who had little contact with the local community because they were unemployable since jobs were protected by unions, educational qualifications etc.  Although some argued that this painted too bleak a picture, the point was made that all EU countries were moving in the direction of increased welfare provision and that Sweden and Denmark might have a role as laboratories for immigration into the EU.  

In looking at policies which might help in the future, we started from the point that zero immigration was a misplaced aim and likely to prove ineffective.  The pressures and human tragedies giving rise to refugee flows (now visible worldwide on television) were irresistible.  Some of us thought that it should be possible to identify, in advance, the forces which gave rise to refugees and internally displaced people.  This should give developed countries an opportunity for proactive policies aimed at moderating such pressures.  The 1951 Geneva Convention was thought to be inadequate for refugee protection in the 21st Century and, according to some, needed to be extended on the grounds that the difference between forced migration under the Convention and the economic pressures which made others leave their countries, was not great.  This prompted the suggestion that Ministries of the Interior might support the involvement of the UNHCR in the development process through its association with the United Nations International Development Group.  Neighbouring countries in a region with a high level of refugee displacement like Pakistan and Iran with Afghan refugees, should, it was suggested, be given more assistance as should countries dealing with large numbers of Internal Displaced People.  This might be a productive use of funds.  The possibility of establishing safe zones in which people might be dealt with in a more orderly way was currently under study by the UK, Holland and Denmark.  Given that 80-90% of asylum claims were unsuccessful and expensive to litigate in a developed country, would it not make more sense to divert the funds to UNHCR and other agencies to provide assistance to refugees in the area instead of paying so many lawyers?  This policy could be presented as an up-front investment in UNHCR to prevent refugee flows.  UNHCR should , in any case, be funded on a regular basis.

As far as planned immigration was concerned, many of us supported the Canadian approach.  This included strong Government advocacy for a comprehensive policy which permitted immigration for economic, family reunification and humanitarian reasons.  In addition, the existing population had been given assurances that their society would be protected and high welfare standards maintained.  On arrival, immigrants had been given the full benefits of citizenship including the right to work, with only the right to vote delayed by a few years.  In this scenario, integration was defined not as assimilation but as giving all immigrants the opportunity to participate equally in all areas of public life.  We were warned, however, about the long-term nature of “success” and “failure” in policy outcomes.  Some could be unintended.  The move from homogenous to multicultural societies had not been planned. 

Practitioners were more cautious.  While a focussed and clearly presented policy was no doubt desirable the effects might not be visible for many years and the situation could change rapidly.  They were, therefore, doubtful about setting specific targets.  Flexibility and pragmatism seemed better guides to policy where the forces confronting governments could not easily be managed, even if, as some had suggested, a senior Minister for Migration were appointed with Cabinet status.  We needed to avoid stretching the social cohesion of the receiving state to the point where decision-making became impossible.  We also needed to avoid social disorder based on settled patterns of disadvantage.  Oppositional cultures, commented another participant, could become self-fulfilling prophecies.  In a final round on this point, the comment was made that Governments probably could not afford to duck the effort of explanation if they were looking for long-term consent.  But commented, a participant with political experience, it was a gamble in a democratic society.  If, after the explanation, the population came up with the “wrong” answer, the position could be more, not less, complicated.  This needed to be borne in mind by those calling for debate and consent.

In a final look at the ground we had covered we drew attention to the effects of emigration on the sending countries. The positive impact of remittances needed to be set against a brain and skill drain.  We also heard that underlying the specific questions we had been discussing were two basic issues:  the first was that of globalisation.  At a time when we were pressing for the free circulation of capital, raw materials and goods, it was inequitable to maintain tight controls on the movement of labour ( people).  Freedom of movement had been one of our highest priorities during the cold war, we were reminded.  The second was the question of risk.  The way in which a society reacted to risk said a lot about it.  Some saw risk as a danger and others as an opportunity.  How would our societies see immigration? 

Could planned migration bring order out of chaos?  Could policy impede or help integration?  Could analysts disseminate the results of their research in a way which helped policy makers and could analysts focus on areas of importance for future policy like illegal immigration?  These were some of the questions we discussed at the conclusion.  A participant commented that the debate on immigration was dominated by fear.  If the 1951 Convention were re-negotiated today it was unlikely it would be so generous.  One of the main requirements was to have sufficient knowledge to allow good policy at both the macro and the micro level to anticipate events.  Policy makers needed to set a clear direction and, if specific numbers were too risky, then they should at least base their guidelines on values and principles. 

I am grateful to all those who participated for discussing the issues in an open but non-confrontational way.  It is a question which challenges both our societies and ourselves as individuals in a very direct way.  And it is clear that the questions of migration and asylum are likely to grow in importance rather than diminish in the years ahead.  It is a subject to which Ditchley will, no doubt, return on some future occasion to see how well our analysis and policy recommendations have stood the test of time.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression


Chairman: The Honorable Frederick D Barton

Senior Advisor, International Security Programme and Co-Director, Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project, Center for Strategic and International Studies (2002-);  formerly Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees (1999-2001);  member Advisory Council, American Ditchley Foundation


Mr David Watt

Counsellor Immigration, Australian High Commission


Professor Stephen Castles

Director, Refugees Studies Programme, Queen Elizabeth House, University of Oxford


Dr Agnes Hurwitz

Programme Associate, International Peace Academy, New York (Jan 2004-);  Formerly:  Ford Foundation Fellow, Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford


Mr James Bissett

Policy Consultant, Immigration and Refugee Issues (1997-);  formerly:  Canadian Ambassador to Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Albania

Mr Martin Collacott

Senior Fellow, Immigration and Refugee Policy, The Fraser Institute;  formerly:  Canadian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka;  Ambassador to Syria

Professor Jeffrey G Reitz

Professor of Sociology, R F Harney Professor and Directory of Ethnic, Immigration and Pluralism Studies, University of Toronto


Mr Bertel Haarder

Minister for Refugees, Immigration and Integration Affairs, Denmark


Ms Sandra Pratt

Deputy Head, Immigration and Asylum Unit, DG Justice and Home Affairs, European Commission


Ms Laurence Hunzinger

International Organisation for Migration


Mr Max Maldacker

First Counsellor, Political, German Embassy


Dr Theodora Kostakopolou

University of Manchester


Mr Manolo Abella

Chief, International Migration Programme, International Labour Organisation;  Member, Advisory Board, Centre on Migration Policy and Society (COMPAS), Oxford University


Dr Valentina Pisanty

Professor of Semiotics, University of Bologna


Ms Rushanara Ali

Team Leader, Community Cohesion Unit, Home Office

Mr Nick Blake QC

Founder Member and Chair, Matrix Chambers;  Special Advocate, Special Immigration Appeal Commission

Dr Christina Boswell

Head, Migration Research Group, Hamburg Institute of International Economics

Ms Naaz Coker

Chair, The Refugee Council

Sir Adrian Fortescue KCMG LVO

Visiting Fellow, John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University;  formerly:  Director General, Justice and Home Affairs, European Commission

Mr John Gieve

Permanent Under Secretary, Home Office

Dr Mara Goldstein

Team Leader, JHA, Germany/Austria European Union, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Mr David Goodhart

Founder and Editor, “Prospect” magazine;  a member, Ditchley Foundation Programme Committee

Sir Andrew Green KCMG

Chairman, MigrationwatchUK (2002-);  formerly:  Ambassador to Saudi Arabia (1996-2000)

Mr Dominic Grieve MP

Member of Parliament (Conservative) for Beaconsfield (1997-);  Shadow Home Affairs Spokesman (2001-)

Professor Elspeth Guild

Solicitor, Kingsley Napley;  Professor, University of Njiemigem

Professor Gil Loescher

Senior Fellow for Migration, Forced Displacement and International Security, The International Institute for Strategic Studies

Dr Shamit Saggar

Currently, World Fellow, Yale University, USA (2003-);  Senior Policy Adviser, Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit (2001-03)

Professor Ronald Skeldon

School of African and Asian Studies, University of Sussex

Ms Susie Symes

Economist, Broadcaster and Chair of Trustees, Museum of Immigration and Diversity

Ms Joanne van Selm

Senior Policy Analyst, Migration Policy Institute, USA


Dr Jeffery Crisp

Head, Evaluation and Policy Analysis Unit, United Nations High Commission for Refugees

Ms Anne Dawson Shepherd

UK Representative, United Nations High Commission for Refugees


Professor Ted Marmor

Professor of Public Policy and Management, School of Organisation and Management, and Professor of Political Science, Yale University;  a Member of the Advisory Board, American Ditchley Foundation

Mr Brian O’Dwyer

Senior partner O’Dwyer & Bernstein;  Commissioner of the New York City Commission on Human Rights

Dr Sharon Stanton Russell

Senior Research Scholar, Center for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology;  Member, Academic Advisory Board, International Organization for Migration (IOM)