The Light of Evidence 3: Continuing the policy debate

By: Ben Gidley, Associate Professor and Senior Researcher

COMPAS’s original brief was to conduct research that provided new evidence, challenged assumptions, developed theory, and informed policy and public debate in the migration field: this remains true today. Our work has explored changing migration processes and outcomes. But informing migration policy has been an equal crucial part of our mission.

We have argued that academics play a key role in public life in addressing the gaps in the evidence base, interrogating underlying assumptions, and investigating the development of migration policy itself. In particular, we have worked to bring our own research, and that of the wider community of migration scholars, to bear on political and policy debate in the UK, with the hope of shaping a more fact-based – and less emotionally and ideologically driven – conversation about the phenomenon that is so central to our changing world.

In this spirit, for the last four years, COMPAS has organised monthly Breakfast Briefings in Westminster, to bring the latest research evidence on a range of migration-related issues to a policy-making audience.

These Briefings were funded from COMPAS’s core grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Now that our ESRC core funding period has ended, we remain committed to productively contributing to policy debates in the UK and beyond, and we are very pleased to have won funding from Oxford University for a range of Knowledge Exchange activities which we will launch after the summer, including a continuation of our Breakfast Briefing series. We are grateful too to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), an independent thinktank in Westminster which hosts the Briefings, making them accessible to policy-makers.

I summarised the 2011/12 series here and the 2012/13 here. In this post, I will describe some of the highlights of the 2013/14 series.

Local impacts of migration

The series began with a briefing by Jon Simmons, the head of the Migration and Border Analysis for Home Office Science, focusing on the local-level social and public service impacts of international migration, based on an important recent report from Home Office Science (which I blogged about here).

Earth “Global Village”Using a large suite of variables, the report allocated the local authorities of England and Wales to twelve clusters, ranging from “superdiverse London” through “Rural and Coastal Retirement Areas” to “Low Migration Small Towns and Rural Areas”, each with different types of migrant populations. Then the experiences of local authorities were analysed to start the processes of unpacking the huge variations in the social and service delivery implications of different types of migrant populations.

Jon’s briefing zoomed in on “Diverse conurbation centres”, such as Birmingham and Bradford, where long-settled BME populations have been augmented by on-going migration from the global South; “Migrant worker towns and countryside”, places such as Boston, Breckland and Thanet, with very few African and Asian migrants but large numbers of EU accession migrant workers arriving among an ageing, stable and relatively ethnically homogenous population; “Prosperous small towns”, such as St Alban’s or the towns of the Cotswolds, economically vibrant areas to which long-settled migrants are moving; and “Industrial and manufacturing towns”, such as Hartlepool or Merthyr Tydfil, deprived areas with among the fewest international migrants and most stable populations in the country.

The variation between such places – the very different ways in which migration patterns are re-shaping each of them – shows why our migration debate needs to go beyond the simplistic and frequently alarmist facts and pseudo-facts so often thrown around. But it also points to key gaps in the evidence base on migration at the local level. Understanding how place matters in migration and its impacts – capturing Britain’s new cartography of diversity – has become a research priority for COMPAS.

The price of rights

Our second briefing moved from the local to the global. COMPAS’s Martin Ruhs presented material related to his new book, The Price of Rights. He asked how we might balance openness and rights in labour immigration policy. Drawing on evidence from 43 countries, he showed that the openness of labour migration correlates with the skills of the migrants targeted and that more skilled migrants are granted more skills.

The empirical trade-off between open borders and migrant rights raises normative policy questions, and is a challenge to a pro-migration lobby which has assumed that both openness and rights are a good thing. Martin’s contribution to this debate exemplifies one of the key elements of the COMPAS approach. As we wrote in the report of that name, published for our tenth anniversary earlier this year, COMPAS’ work has revealed the trade-offs that characterise migration decision-making at every level. Trade-offs shape policy and yet their hidden nature means they are often not debated. Without transparency on the costs and benefits of such decisions, we cannot have an evidence-based migration debate.

Work and irregularity

The next briefing, by Alice Bloch, Professor of Sociology at Manchester, stayed with the topic of the labour market and migrant rights, but zooming in to the micro level, presenting the findings of qualitative research with irregular migrants in the UK. Rather than presenting irregular migrants as either outlaws undermining British workers or exploited victims of the immigration system, Alice showed that irregular migrants use mobility and a range of other strategies to exercise some agency in the face of both constraints and opportunities. The experience of irregular migrants is extremely heterogeneous, defying generalisation.

The project looked at Bangladeshi, Turkish and Chinese migrants working beneath the radar in the UK, mainly in the food sector, living in a state of precarity in which insubordination at work or the choice of walking to work and catching the bus might be a step to deportation. But Alice also explored the choices such migrants can make, such as choosing to stay in a job or leave, or to move within a city or to another city.

Alice concluded that more punitive policy will stop neither the flow of migration nor the employment of workers without the correct documentation, but will further entrench marginalized workers in the most precarious and unregulated parts of the economy.

Migration in Scotland

Allan Findlay and David McCollum, of the University of St. Andrews, and Jakub Bijak, of the University of Southampton, provided a very different take on migration and policy. Like Alice’s project, their work is funded by the ESRC, this time as part of its The Future of the UK and Scotland programme, which has also supported some of the work of the Migration Observatory.

Scotland-welcome signIn September, of course, Scotland will hold an historic referendum on its constitutional future. Migration is an important aspect of the debates surrounding this ballot: the current UK government has emphasised its desire to restrict immigration to Britain, whilst the Scottish Government has viewed net immigration as a valuable contributor to the economic and demographic growth of Scotland. Allan and colleagues explored these contrasting positions using secondary datasets and interviews with employers, students and local authorities, addressing the challenges and opportunities that Scotland faces in devising an immigration policy attuned to its particular needs, whatever the outcome of the referendum.

Scotland became a net migration nation only in the current century, its population growth rate only catching up with the rest of Europe’s as a result of that shift. But while the proportion of foreign-born nationals in England is among the highest in EU (just behind Spain), the proportion in Scotland remains one of the lowest (just ahead of Lithuania). Students constitute a massive part of that proportion, even more than in England, and very new migrants are very heavily represented.

However, looked at from a different scale, in comparison with the regions of the UK, Scotland appears less exceptional: the migrant percentage is lower than most English regions (although higher than in the North East, but only slightly, with London’s extremely high migrant population skewing England’s demographic profile considerably: at this scale it is London that stands out rather than Scotland. Forecasting the future of migration in Scotland is hard. Using Bayesian analysis, the research project predicts that independence will most dramatically change the picture, but with experts divided on whether the impact will be positive or negative.

The final part of the briefing focused on the exceptional nature of migration attitudes in Scotland. Employers in Scotland value immigration and are critical of the UK’s restrictive and London-centric policies. The general public is much less hostile than in England (apart from in inner London), with strong support for Scotland controlling its own borders and referendum Yes voters being far more pro-migration than No voters.

Challenging far right extremism

The next briefing shifted scale to look at local policy, but in a larger comparative perspective. Vidhya Ramalingam, a Research and Policy Manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, presented the findings of a two-year research project, funded by the European Commission, to assess policy and practitioner approaches to far-right extremism across 10 EU countries (UK, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Slovak Republic), and enhance European cooperation and sharing of good practice.

The briefing focused on a series of policy recommendations, based on the evidence of what works across Europe. Among these were the following. Interventions should be underpinned by clear and consistent legal frameworks. Public agencies need to work with communities to deliver effective responses. There must be serious long-term investments in preventive measures, also focusing on deterrence, offering alternatives. There is a key role for improved and streamlined data gathering, both within countries and across the EU. Governments and NGOs should work together to enhance public understanding of the threat, underpinned by clear political messages. And finally there’s a need for major capacity building initiatives to enhance the ability of frontline workers to spot and respond to the signs of radicalisation.

This briefing was followed by a roundtable involving local practitioners from Luton, who powerfully described their steep journey in response to the emergence of both jihadist and far right mobilisation in the city.


Our April briefing was also focused on effective intervention. It explored both the scale of and potential response to migrant destitution and was provided by MigrationWork’s Sue Lukes, and the Chartered Institute of Housing’s John Perry, both former members of the Housing and Migration Network, who have built the housing rights website

Pauper sleeping on a cardboardThe briefing provided evidence on the growing scale of migrant destitution in the UK, and especially in the capital, the weaknesses in the methodologies we have for counting, and the changes in welfare provision and immigration that law that shape these trends. Sue described both rough sleeping and marginal forms of accommodation (including “beds in sheds”). The second part of the briefing shifted to policy responses, the huge challenges posed to the advice sector, and some potential good practice. A case study of the Hope project in Birmingham gave a sense of what can be done at a local level, despite constraints.

NGOs and voluntary returns

In the May briefing, Derek McGhee and Claire Bennett, based at our partner research institute the Centre for Population Change at the University of Southampton, presented on the findings of the ESRC project Tried and Trusted?, which asks What is the role of NGOs in AVR, the assisted voluntary returns of asylum seekers and irregular migrants?

Under the government’s AVR programme, returnees are not subjected to outward mechanisms of enforcement (handcuffs, guards, etc.) but rather ‘choose’ to return and are granted a support package to reintegrate. NGOs are becoming heavily involved in these programmes, and in the UK the entire programme is implemented by a refugee charity. This generates ethical dilemmas for the sector, which the project explored through qualitative interviews.

Mainstreaming migrant integration

The final briefing of the year focused on integration, and provided a comparative picture drawn from research across Europe. Elizabeth Collett and Milica Petrovic, of Migration Policy Institute Europe,

The research was done as part of an MPI Europe project for the Dutch government to explore different models of mainstreaming migrant integration in Western European countries, in the context of sharp cuts to integration budgets Europe-wide.

Block ShapesIntegration policy, Liz and Milica argued, is at a crossroads. Changing demographics (superdiversity), austerity and budget cuts, a sense of failed failed integration measures, and the rejection of stigmatisation and prioritisation by some minorities have all driven a turn from targeted integration policies towards “generic” mainstream measures, whether in discourse, in governance or in actual concrete policies. This offers opportunities – the leverage of whole-of-government approaches, addressing needs, not background, using funds effectively – but also challenges – confusion about ownership, vulnerable groups falling through the cracks. Since the briefing, the UK report of the project has been published, written by Sundas Ali and me.

As Liz and Milica noted, questions remain: When are mainstream policies insufficient to address specific needs? When is a targeted approach needed? How to ensure really shared responsibility? How to identify and address needs effectively? How to evaluate what works? Partly building on this work, Erasmus University Rotterdam developed the UpStream project, in which COMPAS is a partner, exploring the politics and practice of mainstreaming in more depth, attempting to address these gaps in evidence.

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Hard Evidence: are migrants good for the economy?

By: Carlos Vargas Silva, Senior Researcher, Migration Observatory
(This blog was first published by The Conversation on 19 August 2014)

Two studies about the impact of migration on the UK economy have been published which – if media reports are to believed – appear to contradict one another. A closer reading of these reports, however, shows that in fact they come to very similar economic conclusions. Even so, from reading them it is possible to suggest very different approaches to migration policy.

One study by Professor Robert Rowthorn led to headlines such as: “Further proof of damage created by immigration” and: “How mass migration hurts us all”.

The second study is a paper published by Lisenkova and others in the latest issue of the National Institute Economic Review which led to headlines such as: “Reducing immigration would slow UK economy and lead to tax rises” and: “Cameron’s migration cap would leave Brits poorer and taxes higher

So clearly the two reports have created space for some news outlets to pick their own truth. But what should we make of these different studies – and what do they contribute to our understanding of the impacts of migration on the economy?

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Sticking plaster solutions? City-level responses to destitute migrant families

By: Jonathan Price, Research Officer

Laws and policies framing the entitlements of migrants to welfare benefits lie at the intersection of two of Europe’s most contentious contemporary public debates: immigration and welfare. These often tense and emotive debates are the subject of a forthcoming study soon to be published by COMPAS, and funded by the Open Society Foundations. Focusing on two European cities – Berlin and Madrid – we examine how laws and policies in these two cities frame entitlements and exclusions to welfare benefits for migrant children and their families; how these families access or are unable to access services to which by law they are entitled; the implications when they are not entitled or able to access those services, and the ways in which the state and NGOs have responded to any problems these exclusions create.

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The course of true love never did run smooth

By: Melanie Griffiths, Research Associate, University of Bristol and COMPAS alumni

Migration scholars have traditionally neglected the intimate and family realms, an omission that has been blamed on an enduring assumption that (initial) migrants are single men, moving for labour purposes. The perception is increasingly being challenged, including by researchers at COMPAS and the University of Bristol, who are currently conducting an important joint project on interethnic marriage migration and integration.

Such research demonstrates that mobility does not exist outside of the world of human relationships. People who move have family ties in their countries of origin, and will go on to make new ties. As the work on transnationalism contends, our intimate lives are increasingly likely to span multiple countries and cross formal borders.

This is not, however, a new phenomenon. Indeed, the policing of cross-border love has long been employed in defining the nation. Historically, political concern over Britons marrying non-citizens has tended to be biased on grounds of gender, ethnicity and class. Overt discrimination has largely been erased from the legislation, but bureaucratic hurdles against mixed immigration status relationships still exist and these continue to disproportionately affect certain people over others.

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Saving the Lifeline: Studying the Somali diaspora involvement in the 2013-14 campaign

By: Giulia Liberatore, Research Officer

For most Muslims around the globe, Ramadan is a quiet time of the year, dedicated to introspection and prayer. It is a period where the pace of life slows down and tranquillity reigns. But in 2013, this was not the experience of many Somalis in the UK, as they engaged in an unexpected wave of political mobilisation—one that I have been researching over the last couple of months, as part of a larger project onDiaspora Engagement in War-Torn Societies.’

pound coinsThe trigger for these events came on the 8th May 2013, when Barclays Bank announced that it planned to shut down the accounts of 250 money transfer operators (MTOs), amongst which were four Somali MTOs operating in the UK, including Dahabshiil, the largest in the Somali remittance market and a major player in the formal economy of the Somali regions. [1]

The decision didn’t come as a surprise to many. Over the last few years, and particularly following the financial crisis, mounting pressure from many Western regulators (particularly in the US and the UK) has led to tighter regulation around the prevention of money laundering and the financing of terrorist activities. For example, in the UK, HSBC was fined $1.9 billion in 2012 due to money laundering offences and lack of controls, and as a result closed down its MTO accounts. In this climate, banks such as Barclays, who provide accounts for MTOs, were inevitably going to weigh the perceived risks and due diligence costs with the profitability of banking MTOs (Lindley and Mosley 2014: 4-5). But the impending account closures were particularly worrying for the Somali diaspora and others, given the lack of an established banking system and the absence of viable alternatives.

A Somali uprising
The seeds of dissent were planted soon after the announcement by a small group of individuals with close ties to some of the MTOs, who immediately appreciated the consequences of the Bank’s decision. Gradually, Facebook and Twitter feeds were sprinkled with this concern and momentum gathered quickly. A key moment was the signing of a letter  by over 100 academics and NGOs pressuring the government to find a durable solution to the issue; this prompted the first wave of public and media attention and encouraged the mobilisation of Somali groups and individuals. Throughout the long and hot days of Ramadan, young volunteers collected signatures in mosques, shopping centres and Somali restaurants in support of the petition ‘Save Remittance Giving’, which was organised by a host of east London Somali groups in collaboration with Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, Rushanara Ali. Awareness of the issue was also raised online through a petition which was set up by campaigner and director of a Somali educational consultancy organisation, Farhan Hassan. The latter spread rapidly, reaching many social network-savvy youngsters who found further channels of distribution. When Olympic athlete Mo Farah endorsed the campaign a further spike in signatures ensued; the two petitions quickly garnered over 100,000 signatures, culminating in a first parliamentary debate on the 17th July.

Youth engagement
Somali youth have often been portrayed as disengaged not only in UK politics, but also in matters affecting the homeland.[2] However, an interesting feature of the campaign was the substantial involvement of the one-and-half and second generation Somalis, and of a number of newly established diaspora youth groups.

Somali groups in the UK, set up predominantly by the first generation, have long been providing crucial support to those settled in the UK, as well as engaging with issues ‘back home’. Some of the more recent groups, however, have emerged following the July 2005 bombings and the growing threat of Al-Shabaab recruits, as the Home Office began to involve the diaspora in its various counter-terrorism and integration projects. Another catalyst for their growth was the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) efforts to engage with and consult the diaspora prior to the Somalia 2012 Conference. Indeed, one of the legacies of this consultation was the establishment, within the Somalia Unit, of the first and only ‘diaspora outreach role’ in the FCO.

Rubick's Cube with social media logosIt was many of these same groups that spearheaded the campaign against the Barclays’ decision, and the young campaigners involved were (and continue to be) adept in these activities. Speaking both English and Somali, they were able to engage individuals across the generational divide and, to this end, they exploited social networking technologies, as well kinship networks and word of mouth. This allowed them to mediate between different groups of Somalis as they sought to present a coherent and unified voice which transcended regional and clan divisions.

Moreover, having been raised predominantly in Europe, they were attuned to development and humanitarian discourses, and even well-placed to work collaboratively with international organisations. A good example of this was their partnership with Oxfam and Adeso in October 2013; in one of the most memorable stunts of the campaign, the campaigners mounted Barclays-sponsored ‘Boris’ bikes and cycled in protest into central London. Making their way through busy London traffic they delivered bags of fake money to the bank’s headquarters, in order to illustrate the difficulties they would face in sending money to their loved ones back home should the accounts be closed. Barclays were asked to ‘back-pedal and fast!’

But one of the key determinants of the success of the campaign was the ability of these groups to capitalise on their knowledge of the UK political system and the relationships which they had cultivated with various government departments. Local MPs were lobbied to support the cause, meetings with key figures in government were arranged, and even at meetings on unrelated matters, the issue of remittances was raised and forced onto the table. As one government employee in the Somalia Unit pointed out: Somalis know how to get what they want and they persevere until they get it! The signatures from the petitions were put to good effect, and these young diasporans established themselves as a force to be reckoned with. 

Framing the debate
In a post financial crisis climate, any campaign against a major bank was bound to gather some traction, but for tangible results, the campaigners knew they also needed to get the government involved. Initially, however, the government dismissed the issue as a commercial decision, over which they had no say, and stated in its ‘Factsheet on Somali Remittances’ in October 2013 that Somalis had alternative avenues to remit money back home. This was vehemently disputed by the campaigners.

First, the campaigners highlighted the uniqueness of the Somali corridor, pointing to the aforementioned lack of a central banking system, the lack of viable alternatives, and the cost efficiencies of the current system.

Second, they pointed to the profound humanitarian consequences of any closure of this corridor.  The annual remittance flows of $1.2 billion was said to be a ‘lifeline’ for the country, constituting more than international aid, foreign investment and exports put together (Hammond et al 2013: 1). Once the campaigners placed this in context, their logic was impossible to ignore. After all, the government had hosted two conferences on Somalia in 2012-13, presenting the country as one of its top foreign policy priorities. It had also recognised the crucial role played by remittances, which had been particularly highlighted during the famine in 2011. By the time of the parliamentary debate in July 2013, these were well-trodden lines of argumentation.

Eventually, the government changed tack.  In October 2013, with pressure mounting, it committed to setting up an Action Group on Cross Border Remittances composed of three working groups. One of these is developing a ‘Safer Corridors to Somalia Pilot Project’, and is coordinated by the Department For International Development (DFID) with the support of the National Crime Agency, and in consultation with an advisory group and a technical implementation team. The influential role of the diaspora groups in this period can be discerned from the fact that three diaspora representatives, as well as the coordinator of the Somali Money Services Association (SOMSA), were selected by the government to form part of the advisory group[3], which meets on a bi-weekly basis.

Searching for a Solution
Despite the government’s commitment, Barclays has not revoked its decision and the Somali MTOs are yet to find alternative banking options. Dahabshiil, which sought and won an interim injunction against Barclays Bank continues to operate as usual for the time being.

Whilst popular attention given to the issue has since declined, Ramadan 2014 has again proved to be a relatively stressful period for many campaigners as they await further developments. The plan for the Safer Corridor project is due to be presented and implemented in the coming months, and the diaspora representatives have been developing a community engagement strategy to facilitate communication around the Pilot.  But adding to the stress is the on-going fear that Dahabshiil’s account will be closed before a durable solution is found.

While my work thus far has been primarily with the campaigners in London, next month I will be travelling to Hargeysa, Somaliland, to research the transnational impact of the diaspora’s involvement in the campaign. I will be investigating what the various stakeholders are doing to find a solution to the issue, and, most importantly, I will be assessing the role of the diaspora in shaping a changing money transfer sector.

The project is led by Nicholas Van Hear and funded by the Leverhulme Trust as part of the Oxford Diasporas Programme. Based on primary research, it focuses on diaspora engagement in Sri Lanka, the Somali regions, and Afghanistan. The Somali component of the research focuses on the diaspora’s involvement in the campaign to maintain remittance flows, against the background of growing stability across the Somali regions since 2012. 


Lindley, A. and Mosley, J. 2014. Challenges for the Somali Money Transfer Sector. Nairobi, Kenya: Rift Valley Institute Briefing Paper.

Hammond, L. et al. 2011. Cash and Compassion: The Role of the Somali Diaspora in Relief, Development and Peace-Building. Report of a Study Commissioned by UNDP, Somalia, January 2011

Hammond, L. et al. 2013. Family Ties: Remittances and Livelihoods Support in Puntland and Somaliland. Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit – Somalia

[1] Others included Mustaqbal, Tawakal and Horyaal.

[2] See Hammond et al (2011) for a recent exception to this case.

[3] Other members of the Advisory Group include banks, regulators, NGOs, international partners and the UK and Somali governments. The technical implementation team is led by the World Bank.

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