Scottish Parliamentary Elections 2011: is migration a matter out of place?

With less than a month to go until the Holyrood elections on May 5, all those standing at the poll are now busy knocking on doors, leafleting and presenting themselves at hustings across Scotland to win the support of voters. While efforts to boost economic growth and the implications of UK Governments’ budget cuts for Scotland dominate much of the candidates’ and parties’ campaigns across a wide array of issues, from job creation, education, health, policing to the environment or council tax, there is a peculiar silence on questions around migration and the interests of migrant communities in these elections.

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Hyo Eun Shin supports Migrants’ Rights Scotland and the Migrants’ Rights Hub Project as the Regional Coordinator for Scotland. Before moving to Scotland, she has been engaged in issues of migration and human rights through her involvement in various civil society organisations in Germany and South Korea. She holds a degree in Sociology with minor subjects European Ethnology and Political Science from Freie Universität Berlin, and a law degree from Humboldt Universität Berlin.

The fact that the migrant population in Scotland is relatively small (6%, according to a recent ONS estimate of the foreign-born population in Scotland) and that immigration and asylum are policy areas reserved to Westminster seem to provide an (often cited) rationale behind this silence.

On the first point, it seems worth recalling that migrant communities might have a bigger impact on this election than one may think, as many members of so called settled migrant communities and refugees have become British citizens and might thus not appear as migrants in statistics. Furthermore, Commonwealth and British Overseas Territories citizens but also – and this is different from the UK general elections – EU migrants are eligible to vote in Scottish Parliament elections. This is not to say that these diverse migrant communities naturally have the same interests and political inclinations, but rather to caution against making simple inferences from the ‘low’ number of migrants in Scotland overall, especially as some constituencies have a higher concentration of migrants than others, and to argue that candidates and parties will be well advised not to sideline these voters.

On the second point, with regard to the ‘division of labour’ between Holyrood and Westminster, which leaves immigration policies under the control of the UK government, I keep wondering: Is migration a matter out of place in the Scottish elections? Yes, seems to be the answer when looking at the party election manifestos published to date (Scottish LabourScottish ConservativesScottish Lib Dems); none of them makes any explicit reference to the role migration plays in Scotland, and the only (faintly?) related reference seems to be the Lib Dems’ pledge to “examine the ways in which EU students can contribute more” to university funding in order to allow Scottish universities to “remain world leaders in many fields”, while reserving free university education for Scottish students.

Now, the Scottish higher education sector appears as one of the key topics in all three manifestos, with the Conservatives arguing for a graduate contribution, as the “proud tradition of Scottish universities… can only continue if there are additional sources of funding”, while Scottish Labour promises that “there will be no upfront or back-end tuition fees for Scottish university students”, with a future review looking “at ways of developing the competitiveness of Scottish universities and their economic contribution, as well as improving governance and efficiency” suggested as a step to solve the sector’s funding problem.

None of the above mentions what is regarded by many, not least the Scottish higher education sector itself, as a real threat to maintaining the international competitiveness and the level of contributions Scottish colleges and universities make to the Scottish economy and society in the face of public funding cuts: the recently announced UKBA changes to the student visa system. The 21 written responses to the ongoing Inquiry on the Student Immigration System in Scotland, which umbrella organisations such as Universities Scotland and Scotland’s Colleges, but also individual universities and colleges as well as bodies such as the Scottish Council for Development and Industry and the STUC have managed to submit to the Scottish Affairs Committee at Westminster – despite the remarkably short consultation deadline of only 17 days -, are highly critical of these policy changes. The submissions highlight not only that international students are “crucial to the financial sustainability of Scottish universities” as they “contribute £188m directly to Scottish universities (more than 16% of universities’ total teaching income)” as well as a “further £321m to the Scottish economy in other expenditure” (e.g. accommodation, food, entertainment), but that e.g. Scotland’s universities, as an industry, contribute 6% of Scotland’s GVA, support 150,000 Scottish jobs and are vital in bringing international trade to Scotland (£561million in 2008/9). Furthermore, given the demographic projections, attracting international students and retaining graduates from Scottish universities are especially crucial for Scotland (see, e.g., on a related argument, Taulant Guma’s earlier blog).

While leaving a closer analysis of the inquiry to a future blog, the above sketch of some of the arguments put forward in the consultation responses should do no more than demonstrate how intrinsically intertwined migration policies are – on a very practical level – with issues that are at the heart of Scottish election campaigns, and the education sector is just one of many areas where migration and the contributions of migrant communities seem to be essential parts of the bigger picture. So can the parties really make their arguments for economic growth and strengthening the international competitiveness of Scottish businesses, industries and the economy as a whole without mentioning the elephant in the room?

Ironically, the fact that immigration is a reserved matter might spare us to some extent from attempts to gain electoral advantage by pandering to fears about migration or by pitting groups against each other in what can all too easily be constructed as a competition for scarce resources or limited services. However, wouldn’t the Scottish elections provide a genuine opportunity for candidates and parties alike to engage the public in a debate which addresses the paradox between calls for internationalisation and strengthening Scotland’s position in a globalised economy on the one hand, and the increasingly anti-immigration policies by the UK government which directly impact on Scottish interests on the other hand? Isn’t there much (not least votes) to be won by demonstrating that their electoral promises are well thought through and will be able to pass the reality test, if they should succeed in these Scottish elections?