One of the motives for leaving the EU is to drastically reduce immigration numbers. 70% of UKIP supporters say this is the most important issue facing the UK and 45% of Conservatives and 25% of Labour voters take the same line. Free movement of labour is a core principle of the E,U so leaving is seen as essential to cutting immigration. It might achieve that but two considerations need to be borne in mind. First, 44% of immigrants do not come from the EU and secondly the UK economy will continue to need skilled foreign workers.
The NHS holds a special place in people’s needs and expectations. 26% of doctors and 14% of qualified clinical staff are from overseas. The BMA has observed that without them “Many NHS services would struggle to provide effective care to their patients”. One hospital patient observed that her surgeon was German, the consultant anaesthetist was Polish and the senior nurse was from Zimbabwe. The Philippines provide more than 12,000 of the nurses in our hospitals and the NHS also employs medical staff from Romania, Hungary, Poland, Latvia, Spain and the Lebanon as well as Ireland.
Another sector that is anxious about Brexit is the building industry and most of the major house builders anticipate serious skill shortages post Brexit. Barratt’s, one of the largest firms in the construction industry says between 30% and 40% of its workforce comes from Europe. Their chief executive, David Thomas says, “It wouldn’t be unusual to find 10-plus nationalities on a London construction site”. If we want more houses built who will do it if these workers are sent home?
Agriculture is another industry that needs foreign labour. Across all industries EU-born workers constitute just 5% of the UK workforce but in agriculture it is 65% according to the Office of National Statistics and this does not include seasonal workers who come over to pick fruit crops in the autumn and return home when they have finished. Pig and poultry farms employ migrant labour and a survey of dairy farmers found that a third had employed migrant staff, with more than half coming from Poland. Despite being a prominent leaver the Secretary of State, Andrea Leadsom, has assured farmers that they will still be able to recruit employees from Europe.
Our employment needs are not the only factor in this debate. In previous centuries Britain offered asylum to waves of refugees. They included deposed rulers like Louse 16 fleeing after a revolution and Jewish people escaping from Hitler’s persecution. Today there are an estimated 15 million people fleeing religious persecution, wars and terrorism, tyrannical governments, famine and poverty. Many of the current tides of refugees are coming from five countries: Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan. There are an estimated 117,234 refugees living in the UK, 0.18% of the population. Germany, Sweden and Hungary have taken many more than us.
Despite the fact that the density of population in England is the highest in Europe, nearly twice that in Germany and four times that in France; we have to ask ourselves whether we have a moral duty to keep our frontiers open to refugees on humanitarian grounds. Famine is a real issue affecting millions of people in South Sudan and Somalia. What responsibilities do we who have food security have for these people who face starvation? Jesus’ answer was “Whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you do for me” (Matthew 25). Should that guide public policy and if not what should? Is cutting immigration really that important?