More Farage, More Immigration

More Farage, More Immigration

Robin Cohen (University of Oxford)

This title is clearly a provocation. How can a politician who has garnered support from about 15% of the British electorate on a policy of restricting immigration, actually generate the opposite result? I’m careful to say ‘restrict’ in line with the UKIP website, which recognises ‘the benefits of limited, controlled immigration’. Perhaps it would not be too far off the mark to say that many of UKIP’s supporters are more attracted to the party’s promise to ‘leave the EU, and take back control of our borders.’ A study of UKIP voters found that ‘on immigration, hostile views were widespread, but UKIP voters were consistently the most intolerant group after the British National Party’. Why are these sympathisers of Nigel Farage likely to be disappointed?

The answer lies in Robert Merton’s law of unintended consequences. As Merton makes clear, there can be enhanced benefits as the law unfolds, but in this case we are firmly in the realm of perverse results, namely an effect quite contrary to the original intention. Migration scholars are well aware that immigration policies are unusually prone to poor outcomes or outright failure. Let me cite three cases:

  • The first is from a classic account of Caribbean migration to the UK by Ceri Peach, who demonstrated that there was an almost perfect correlation between employment vacancies and migration from the West Indies until, in the wake of Enoch Powell’s incendiary interventions, the Commonwealth Immigrants Act was announced in 1961, then passed in April of the next year. The result was a sudden increase in immigration as Caribbean migrants ‘rushed to beat the ban’ (1).
  • The second concerns the case of Dutch Guyana (called Suriname after its independence), recently re-examined by Simona Vezzoli. In 1972, the Dutch Justice Minister announced impending immigration restrictions. ‘Prospects of independence filled the population with growing anxiety,’ says Vezzoli. She continues, ‘political motives, in addition to employment and educational opportunities in the Netherlands contributed to the growth of emigration and the 1971 spike.’ So-called ‘panic migration’ ensued.
  • The third is by far the most important numerically and concerns Latin American and Mexican migration to the USA. This is a much more complicated story than the Caribbean cases, but shows essentially that a massive circulatory migration system in the 1950s was punctuated, but not interrupted, by legal restrictions in 1965. By legally capping immigration numbers, the number of illegals (now with no incentive to return to Mexico) reached some 11 million. Two leading American migration specialists conclude: ‘to say that US immigration policies have failed is an understatement. From 1970 to 2010, the population born in Latin America increased more than eleven times’. (2)

I have cited three cases, but of course there are others I could draw into the argument for purposes of comparison and illustration. However, stacking up the examples will not necessarily clinch the argument. The point is to find some general rules and to draw some reasonable inferences that might be applied to migratory behaviour. There are, it seems, important migration effects once an open system is shut down or, perhaps more potently, threatened with closure. The signal that it will not be easy to move in the future either prompts a decision to move or, if one is already in a destination country, influences a decision to stay. Again, if the system has been open for long enough, network effects kick in. Though network analysis provides a poor explanation for the commencement of migration, it gives an excellent insight into the reason for its continuation. Obviously stated, if family, friends, co-religionists or neighbours have somewhat established themselves in a new society, they provide bridges to accommodation and job contacts, and make the difficult task of adaptation much easier.

The UK and the wider European migration system furnish a good demonstration. As Mr Farage never tires of telling us, citizens of any one of the remaining 27 EU countries are free to migrate to the UK, an open system that is only used by a minority but, theoretically, could be used by many more. What, may we reasonably infer, will influence the decision of non-migrants or ‘maybe-migrants’ to change their sedentary habits and make a move to the UK? Answer: signalling that the open door may soon be slammed shut. And who has been providing the clearest indication of that intention? Well, that will be Mr Farage, who might as well have set up a megaphone in every Polish, Bulgarian or Spanish street announcing the news.

Perhaps one can argue that Mr Farage’s views can be ignored. Many EU migrants already in the UK may well be aware that his party will only win (at most) a small number of seats in the May 2015 general election despite the hullabaloo he creates. However, the Prime Minister is clearly alarmed at the prospect of losing more Conservative votes to UKIP and has, in effect, adopted a soft version of UKIP policies on immigration. When David Cameron not only announces a referendum on EU membership by 2017, if the Tories are returned to office, but talks of a possible earlier test of public opinion, the alarm bells will be ringing in the ears of intending and resident migrants.

Let us try to put ourselves in the mind of (say) a Polish worker in the UK. When the new wave of migration commenced after 2004, many Poles were in a state of what the Polish scholar Agnieska Kubal calls ‘semi-legality’. They were required to register under the Workers Registration Scheme, but many did not do so. It cost £50–£90, was not enforced and was ‘useful’ only when one wanted to claim benefits (as one of Kubal’s respondents declared). Many Poles were somewhat in two minds – living their lives as rotating transnationals, with separated families and strong links in Poland. The crucial weight loading the fulcrum away from bi-locality and towards permanent UK residence lies in a challenge to their freedom of movement.

For a ‘maybe’ migrant, signalling the closure of a hitherto open system is an invitation to move faster and to take advantage of known networks. For a resident migrant, a hint that their future mobility might be imperilled leads them to invest more in becoming legal, buying property, reuniting their families and registering their children at local schools. Ergo, more Farage, more immigration.


Ceri Peach West Indian Migration to Britain: a Social Geography (Oxford University Press, 1968).
Douglas Massey and Karen A. Pren, ‘Unintended consequences of US immigration policy: explaining the post-1965 surge from Latin America’, Population and Development Review, 38 (1), 2012, p. 24.
Agnieska Kubal, ‘Why semi-legal? Polish post-2004 EU enlargement migrants in the United Kingdom’, Journal of Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Law, 23 (2), 2009, pp. 148–64.


Robin Cohen is Emeritus Professor, International Migration Institute, University of Oxford.


Image Credit: Nigel Farage of UKIP (Freestock photo: Wikipedia commons/8/84)