Guest blog – Migration in post-Brexit Scotland

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Dr Paulina Trevena introduces a SPICe and University of Glasgow research project ‘Attracting and retaining migrants in post-Brexit Scotland: is a social integration strategy the answer?’

The research project runs from September 2017 to July 2018. The research has now been published. Dr Trevena’s blog post about it can be found here.

Migration has undoubtedly become a key area of policy concern in Scotland in recent years. But why? The short and simple answer is – because Scotland needs more people to sustain itself as a country.

Developing strategies for attracting and retaining migrants – along with creating an overall positive atmosphere around migration – may be of crucial importance to Scotland’s future.

This project sets out to scope opinion on the idea of introducing a national-level social integration strategy for all migrants in Scotland. Key questions it will look at are:

  • Is a strategy needed?
  • Is it practicable?
  • Would it improve the lives of those who have come to live here?
  • Would it attract other migrants to come to Scotland?
  • Where does the local population stand on this?

The study will be based on focus group discussions. Participants will include local authorities, employers, third sector organisations, academics, different groups of migrants (asylum seekers, refugees, economic migrants, students and those arriving as family members), as well as representatives of established populations.

Some of the issues influencing the need for a social integration strategy are discussed below.

Scotland has an ageing population

Within the UK, Scotland’s demographic situation is distinctive. Not only does it have an ageing population (as does the whole of the UK) but also a very low birth rate (as opposed to the rest of the UK). This means the workforce in Scotland is slowly dwindling as people get older, and there are not enough children born in Scotland to offset this process.

As a result, the only way Scotland can sustain its economy in the future is through migration – both from other parts of the UK and from overseas. Suffice to say, all of the projected increase in Scotland’s population over the next 25 years is due to migration.

Scottish policymakers are supportive of immigration

The political outlook of Scotland on migration is different to that of the current UK Government. The UK Government is clear it is aiming to curb migration. The “hostile environment” that been has created for illegal migration in particular has been affecting migrants in general, especially post-Brexit.

The Scottish Government is trying to create a welcoming environment for migration. This includes making the case for ongoing free movement of EU citizens, as well as supporting a Scotland-specific immigration policy which would be aligned with Scotland’s population needs.

Parts of the Scottish population remain hostile to immigration

Is Scotland prepared to be(come) a country of migration? Significantly, there seems to be a degree of disconnect between the welcoming messages of Scotland’s policymakers and what is actually happening on the ground.

Firstly, public attitudes towards migration in Scotland, though more positive than in other parts of the UK, are not overwhelmingly positive. Secondly, while Scotland aims to grow its population predominantly through migration, it has no clear strategy for attracting and retaining migrants in the country.

The Scottish Government has no control over immigration policy

As things stand, UK immigration policy is a reserved matter, fully controlled by the Westminster Government. In particular, Scotland has no control over the quotas set by the UK.

This is why free movement of people, especially following the EU enlargement of 2004, has been instrumental in growing Scotland’s population. It is expected that Brexit will have a negative impact on population growth in Scotland.

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What scope is there for action within Scotland’s devolved powers?

Little thought has been given to the attractiveness of Scotland as a country of migration and what can be done to strengthen its position within existing legal frameworks. Even if immigration policy remains a reserved matter, there is still scope for Scotland to continue attracting people to live here.

Significantly, a high proportion of people who move to Scotland come from the rest of the UK. Some of this inflow is attributable to retirement. But there are many younger people who move from other parts of the UK to Scotland for work, and this includes both British and non-British nationals.

Therefore, Scotland needs to think more creatively and outwardly about what it has to offer. How does it want to attract people to come and live here rather than other parts of the UK?

Offering desirable work opportunities is only one part of the answer. Work opportunities and other economic factors play a crucial role in attracting migrants to certain areas. But it is their everyday experiences within their local communities that may be key to their decision to stay or leave.

Many of those who have come to live in Scotland face barriers to establishing links with the wider community and integrating, especially in rural areas. Currently, some degree of support is available from local councils and third sector organisations. However, this is patchy, with no overall framework in place.

The exception is the “New Scots” integration strategy, which supports refugees and asylum seekers. This is a holistic initiative, aimed at a particularly vulnerable group of migrants. However, evaluations demonstrate that these groups still need more support for social integration.

Research shows that, in terms of social integration, most migrants arriving in Scotland face very similar challenges, regardless of their immigration status. So, a national-level social integration strategy for all migrants might be an effective alternative.

Dr Paulina Trevena, University of Glasgow.