Scotland and Immigration

Published: 5 September 2013

Kelly Soderstrom blogs from the Festival of Politics 2013

The August 25th panel discussion for the 2013 Festival of Politics entitled “What is the Future of Immigration in Scotland?” proved to be a passionate and informative discussion regarding present and future migration issues in Scotland. Chairman John Wilkes (Chief Executive of Scottish Refugee Council) led a panel of experts consisting of Professor Robert Wright (University of Strathclyde), Professor Alison Phipps (University of Glasgow), and Craig Douglas (PhD candidate at the University of Strathclyde).

Mr. Wilkes began the discussion by asking the panel what migration issues are currently facing Scotland, but a vocal, engaged, and passionate audience quickly turned the discussion into a Q&A that persisted for the remainder of the presentation. Throughout the discussion, a central theme of migration policy gaps, and economic and education inequalities determined the discussion’s ultimate course.

One such migration policy gap, that between England and Scotland, proved to be the most salient and reflective of the core topics discussed. Currently, Scotland has some devolved power regarding the care of migrants; however, general migration policy, especially regarding border control, is dictated by Westminster. All of the panelists agreed that a one-size-fits-all migration policy does not work for Scotland due to differences in policy goals, socioeconomic conditions, and demographics. This leads to tensions between Scotland and Westminster and a general lack of migration policies effectiveness. However, as Professor Wright argued, in the event of a “yes” vote in the 2014 Independence Referendum, Scotland will have the opportunity to tailor its migration policy to its specific economic and cultural interests.

Through this discussion of the England/Scotland migration policy gap, education inequalities also emerged as a discussion flashpoint. The educational ambition of migrants contrasts strongly with the perceived low education levels of the native Scottish population (leading to native “unemployability” and inability to compete with immigrants economically). This gap, and subsequent divide in employment potential, can lead to animosity and fear. Therefore, for Scotland to have a unified and accepting population, it must work to close this gap. The audience and panel generally agreed that reforms in Scottish education policy, including stronger domestic education systems and reinstating the international student post-study work visa, have a huge impact on migration and reduction of xenophobia, and therefore must be included in the conversation.

Economic inequality, especially regarding refugees and current barriers to family reunification, also played a central role in discussions. Global inequalities act as powerful push factors that heavily influence migration to Scotland. However, internal inequalities, especially the “enforced destitution” of refugees described by Professor Phipps, highlight an incredibly important place for potential policy change.

In the end, it all comes down to gaps, and the future of immigration in Scotland depends on how Scotland decides to address these gaps. Given the importance of education and economic policy on migration, it is clear that issues in Scottish migration policy must be approached holistically. It is only with this holistic view that Scotland will be able to effectively work towards a “positive net gain,” as Mr. Douglas described, where migrants are accepted socially and contribute positively to Scottish society. In the end, the outcome of the Independence Referendum in 2014 will have a profound impact on the direction of Scottish migration policy.

Kelly Soderstrom is a Master’s student in International and European Politics at the University of Edinburgh.


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