Press Releases

James Cleverly – 2024 Speech at the Carnegie Council for Ethics on International Affairs [February 2024]

The press release issued by the Home Office on 27 February 2024.

We need to talk about immigration.

Now even saying those words is enough to send some eyebrows soaring and some voices muttering – which is crazy.

Because the conversation around this subject has become highly polarised and highly toxic.

And that is really bad news – because if we can’t do balanced and thoughtful conversation, we can’t do balanced and thoughtful policy making.

And today, I want to explain why all of us must be doing balanced policy making.

Let me first say a word about this wonderful city of New York. It is a fitting venue for this speech, it’s been a major hub for immigration into the USA for centuries.

And the Carnegie Council are the perfect hosts, with a proud history of setting the global agenda and a mission of “using the power of ethics to build a better world”.

Let me talk about my country.

British society has been moulded, developed, and enhanced by centuries of immigration.

And without it, the UK would not be the place it is today.

I am descended from immigrants on both sides of my family. My mum came to the UK to work in our National Health Service from Sierra Leone around 1966 and my father’s family from Normandy in 1066.

British historians give a little chuckle and everyone else is a bit lost on that one.

My country may be a small, wet and windy island. But we are internationalist at heart, we’re a multi-racial country – we have a history of being welcoming and generous.

And our global heritage and connections can also be seen in our language, food, culture, the representatives in our sporting teams, and the representatives in our government.

The ethnic diversity we display is so longstanding and commonplace it rarely merits a mention.

The UK’s post-Brexit legal immigration system enables us to control immigration – and to welcome people from every corner of the Earth that have the right skills and the right talent to support our public services and boost our economy.

And of course, well-managed immigration should also ensure that the people who come to a country also share our values and our standards.

I’m very proud of that the fact UK also plays its part in helping those fleeing conflict.

In recent times we have offered a safe and legal route to over half a million people seeking refuge and their families since 2015. They include but not limited to people from Ukraine, Hong Kong, Afghanistan, and Syria.

And we support community sponsorship for refugees and have initiatives to support displaced people in accessing our labour markets.

The UK also invests heavily in international development and aid because it is an investment in security, in building future trading opportunities, and in supporting future global stability and of course while I have explained some of the benefits of immigration it is important to recognise immigration can also cause tensions, challenges and sometime problems.

Talking about myself again, one of my favourite subjects.

But we cannot and must not hide from the tensions and problems associated with immigration.

My first role as an elected politician was on the London Assembly.

I sat next to someone who had also been elected by the population in the most diverse and international city in the world – even though he represented what was basically a neo-fascist political party.

He was elected in large part because immigration in east London in particular had been badly mishandled and mainstream politicians had ducked the issues about the community tension that that immigration had caused.

That’s the potential risk if we get this issue wrong.

We need to look at the impact on GDP, and culture, and also the pressures on cohesion, housing, and public services.

We can’t just talk about the amazing positive impact of NHS staff like my mum – and other immigrants – but then not discuss the sometimes unpredictable and increased challenges for public services.

And we must recognise that while the benefits of immigration are typically widespread, dispersed, the downsides, pressures and challenges can be felt very locally, and can create real hotspots.

This has been true throughout time. We saw it in the Huguenots coming to east London, we saw it in the Notting Hill riots in 1958.

New York, our host today, is a world-famous metropolis, hugely enhanced by its cosmopolitan nature and the mix of the people that live here. But it too has faced big tensions because of unplanned immigration. American politicians cannot, and must not ignore that.

We’ve got to recognise the nature of immigration is international by definition.

People move in the modern era for the same reasons they always have: physical safety and economic opportunity.

There is nothing new about going where they believe the streets are paved with gold.

But this phenomena has been accelerated, amplified by modern technology and transport.

Journeys that used to be difficult to arrange and potentially take years to make can now be done very quickly and arranged on a mobile phone.

And if it is an illegal journey, it can be facilitated by a people-smuggler who is in neither the country of origin nor destination.

Likewise, the fact that people send so much money back home – both formally and informally – means that a whole family can harness one person’s risk-taking. Global remittance flows exceeded $840 billion last year.

Altogether, there are now around 281 million migrants, accounting for about 3.6 per cent of the global population, and of that number well over 100 million forcibly displaced people.

And the momentum is very much in the direction of even greater travel  flows whether for economic reasons, or because of conflict, climate change, natural disaster, hunger, or other factors.

And counterintuitively an initial increase in a poor person’s wealth actually makes them more likely to move, because they have acquired the financial means to do so.

We must all expect larger and larger numbers of new arrivals, whether they are in transit to another country or seeking a permanent home.

And of course economic migrants often spread their wings to places far from their home.

Whilst well intentioned, blithely insisting that wealthier countries can simply take higher and higher numbers is I’m afraid deluded. It is neither economically nor socially sustainable.

We often pay too little attention to the impact of migration on those countries from which people are leaving in large numbers.

A talent drain can be devastating have a devastating effect, causing a flight of capital, huge gaps in the workforce, and security issues in those countries.

It can be extremely expensive for countries to train professionals only to see them then take their skills elsewhere, for what they perceive to be a more lucrative lifestyle.

In receiving countries, citizens will suffer if their country fails to invest in skills and training and then plugs those gaps with immigration.

I also feel there is something distasteful, perhaps grubby about concluding that certain jobs are beneath our citizens and should be left exclusively to be done by immigrants.

But as I said, in a very polarised debate it is important to leave a space for nuance, as some countries urgently need an injection of labour and skills.

Countries with ageing populations may need immigration to support their economic needs. Some are already adjusting their immigration policies accordingly.

Even in those circumstances the migration needs to be legal, predictable and well managed.

While many immigrants move to a new country full of excitement and hope, seeking a new prosperous life, others do so with a heavy heart, because circumstances in their home countries have forced the move upon them.

I am very keen to see the vast majority of the Ukrainians who have taken refuge in the UK return home…

…emphatically not because they aren’t welcome, because they very much are but because I know it’s what they want.

I hope that they will look back on their time in the UK with immense fondness, and affection, but I also want to make sure Putin fails and Ukrainians we host are once again able to go back to their own country, a country safe and free from occupation.

Not only do conflict and corruption create refugees, seen a new phenomena but hostile states deliberately create refugee crises as a way of de-stabilising other countries.

Belarus is an ignoble example of this phenomenon, sending thousands of desperate migrants to its border with Poland, in an effort to antagonise the European Union following the imposition of sanctions for their culpability in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Others are of course fleeing famine.

Others will face natural disasters. That’s one of the reasons that the world must come together to tackle climate change.

Migration is an inevitable and welcome part of the human story. But in many cases, what people yearn for is a safe and happy home in the country of their birth.

And countries are entitled and it’s quite right to ask: what is the virtue and purpose of someone coming to live in our country?

In this instance once again we need to employ precision of the language that we use.

People have very different reasons for moving – and those reasons should not be conflated or confused, and they are not interchangeable.

If someone is an economic migrant, they should not be treated like a refugee.

Refugees should typically seek sanctuary in the first safe country they reach. And country shopping is a very different matter entirely. Seeking refuge and country shopping are different matters entirely.

For example, no one has to cross the Channel to the UK because France is unsafe.

Being trafficked to a country against your will is not the same thing as choosing to pay a people smuggler to get you there.

If you come here as a student, you cannot automatically expect to stay here in a job. Not all invitations are permanent.

Leaving home because you have to is not the same thing as leaving home because you choose to.

Now wealthy countries of the world have a moral duty to help the poor and dispossessed.

But doing the right thing by those people doesn’t necessarily mean relocating them to our own country.

Central to solving the international migration challenge is doing more, collectively, to help people to stay at home and thrive in their countries.

Because the international community must never start from the premise that some countries are beyond hope and will always be moribund economically, or riven by conflict, or presided over by dictators.

That fatalism serves nobody.

Improving safe and legal routes for refugees is important – but cannot be the summit of our ambition.

We need to take on the conditions, the circumstances, that create refugees and drive large scale migration in the first place.

The UK does this by both being one of the largest investors in overseas development assistance – and our policy of increasing our trade volumes through more trade with the developing world.

If we are to address the scale of movement, we have to address the reasons why people move.

Given the choice, poor people move to where they think more wealth can be sought.

So supporting the poorest countries through international development can play some role in lifting the most vulnerable out of poverty. The UK is proud to be one of the largest aid spenders in the world.

We cannot aid alone.

International trade is the only sustainable way to make poor people less poor.

And allied to that the moral case against illegal immigration is unanswerable.

Of course people should not come to a country illegally…

…of course it is not fair on the host population…

…of course it will undermine popular support for legal immigration…

…and of course it weakens our ability to help those genuinely in need.

But of course that’s not the whole story.

Illegal migration is lethally dangerous.

It is facilitated by criminal gangs who care not one jot about those whom they treat as human cargo – and who use the profits of their foul trade to finance other criminal action.

In recent years, tens of thousands of people have died attempting irregular migration.

And the world cannot stand idly by and let this carry on.

We need to work together to break the business model of the criminal gangs driving illegal migration numbers.

International co-operation in all these areas is essential.

Just as the world has to work together to address climate change – and to seek to end and prevent conflict – so it needs to do the same to combat this illegally facilitated and unsustainable migration.

And we are being innovative in the UK.

Our Migration and Economic Development Partnership with Rwanda is an innovative way of dealing with illegal immigration.

It is designed to act as a deterrent, by making clear that anyone who comes to the UK illegally cannot expect to stay.

But it will also provide illegal immigrants with an alternative home.

In a country genuinely welcoming and thoughtful to refugees.

It is called a Migration and Economic Development Partnership for good reason, as we are making a major investment in Rwanda.

A country seeking to export solutions to a continent which sadly has been subject to importing problems.

We are working closely with France to stop illegal Channel crossings, to good effect.

And I have just signed a deal with Frontex, the European Borders and Coast Guard Agency, to exchange more information and intelligence and take on the people-smuggling gangs together with our near neighbours.

As Ylva Johansson, the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, said in our recent meeting, you have to fight networks with networks.

In order to fight a network. You have to build and network.

The UK has also secured close co-operation on migration with a range of countries, including India, Vietnam, and Albania, and signed returns agreements with countries such as Serbia, Pakistan, and Georgia.

And more recently we have seen other countries consider the need to do more, including exploring safe third country models for dealing with illegal immigration.

Indeed, Italy has developed with Albania its own model for processing asylum claims.

It is striking that these countries are led by governments of varying political hues.

This is far from just a function of political philosophy, but about hard reality. Illegal migration affects them all.

Dealing with this challenge also means considering, together, whether multilateral institutions designed and created decades ago, some instances half a century ago, need updating to meet the challenges of today – and whether we need any new frameworks to do so.

Those who cherish our multilateral institutions – I want to make it very clear, the UK and I do. We recognise them as mighty accomplishments to preserve. We should be the most passionate advocates of adapting them to a profoundly changed and still changing world.

Some of the institutions that we value aren’t working as effectively as we wish. We must reform them or watch them atrophy.

People sometimes think all these institutions have been preserved in aspic since they were created. That is simply not true.

For example, the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees was revised through a new Protocol in 1967, expanding the protections beyond Europe to all people fleeing conflict and persecution.

We need to make sure that the treaties, conventions, and international agreements that govern immigration policy are up to date, are relevant and are not anachronistic.

That they continue to support those who need support but are strong enough to resist abuse.

And there are several recent precedents for increased global co-operation on these issues.

In 2018, the UN General Assembly adopted the Global Compact on Refugees.

It provides the framework for a longer-term, more sustainable response to refugee crises with a focus on supporting refugees and host communities in developing countries closer to the pint of origin of the refugees themselves.

The UK is championing longer-term approaches to protracted displacement and we want to help ensure that refugee children, especially the most marginalised girls, are safe and getting an education.

The compact in turn establishes the Global Refugee Forum – a ministerial meeting every 4 years.

At the GRF last December, the UK government committed to a quota for UNHCR-referred refugees, with an overall cap on safe and legal routes.

We will ardently encourage other countries to follow suit.

US and Canada are world leaders in this area – and we of course will learn from their experiences.

Delivering a more effective global approach through the implementation of the Global Compact for Migration which is central to our international development work.

My former department – the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office – is doing a great deal of regional work to improve livelihoods, tackle conflict and climate change, assist with border management, and support the countries in absorbing migrants, in some instances in far greater numbers than we are.

Reducing the vulnerabilities faced by migrants is both an urgent moral mission and in the self-interest of all developed nations such as ours.

The UK will significantly increase our work with international partners in the UN, G7, international finance institutions, and other global fora to rally greater support for a multilateral approach to these issues.

For example, in October, the Commonwealth Heads of Government are meeting in Samoa.

This year, Italy – a country that has been on the receiving end of very significantly increasing levels of illegal migration – holds the presidency of the G7.

G20 meetings are being held in Brazil, in a continent and of course South America which has long dealt with the difficulties caused by mass migration.

And the UK will host a meeting of the European Political Community, a grouping perfectly suited for discussing illegal migration and the management of that within the European continent.

These, and other major international summits this year, will be moments to mobilise action.

And today I am calling for a big, open, global conversation about what more we need to do together to deal with these changing circumstances.

The UK will show the same sort of leadership on this as we have with climate change, conflict prevention, and the good management of Artificial Intelligence.

Success is dependent on a holistic, whole-of-route approach.

While remaining welcoming and generous, we must urgently consider the impact that this level of migration and the impact it has has not just on those countries where migrants seek to settle, but also ones which they transit and also the countries they leave behind and the migrants themselves.

We need to do more, together, to:

smash the people-smuggling gangs;

to address all the drivers of forced displacement;

to help people to thrive in their own countries;

to encourage developed countries to invest greater sums in international development;

to support countries that wish to settle more refugees;

to tackle irregular migration upstream;

to consider how we need to update the international architecture around these issues;

to increase international trade so we can find together the right; and

find, together, the right balance of economic and cultural growth and control.

Now much of this work is already happening, but I am here to tell you that we must inject greater urgency.

So later today, I will meet with representatives from a host of different countries – from European neighbours who face similar pressures to those faced by the UK to countries who face the opposite challenge, with large swathes of their populations emigrating to foreign lands.

I will be inviting countries from across the globe – as well as institutions like the UN, the International Office of Migration, and the UNHCR to discuss these issues.

And the size of the challenge must be met with equal ambition.

Any approach to global migration that is not rooted in international co-operation is doomed to fail.

And yet the solution to even the hardest of problems lies within our reach.

And we must have the ambition, we must have the courage to grasp it together.