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How migrants boost the economy while also building a better life

By Andrew Webb

Published 08/09/2015

Abdullah Kurdi lost his wife and two children, including son Aylan
Abdullah Kurdi lost his wife and two children, including son Aylan

It is difficult to consider statistics and trends when the harrowing picture of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who drowned while trying to reach Greece, has jolted me so severely and serves to remind that behind statistics and data are real people.

Aylan drowned with his brother and mother while trying to fulfil the hope of a better life.

In this case, people fleeing a life so bad that boarding a boat in unimaginably unsafe conditions feels like the only option.

The one sliver of hope from this tragedy is that it seems to have galvanised a significant movement to do something to help. The press and social media are all rightly reflecting the horror of the image and calls for the UK to shift its stance to the crisis are building.

It is encouraging that the mood in Northern Ireland is one that wants to do more to help refugees and migrants.

Frankly, this isn't always how it appears.

The Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey - which records the attitudes, values and beliefs of our population on a wide range of policy issues - has identified declining levels of agreement to questions around whether respondents would be willing to accept people from minority ethnic backgrounds as a resident in their locality.

Around one in four of us wouldn't. Rather than shake our heads and admonish those attitudes, let me reflect back on some previous work I was involved in and some more recent studies to try and note the impact new arrivals have on our economy.

Northern Ireland has historically been known as a place of emigration, although there are some longstanding and settled minority ethnic communities living here including German Jews, Chinese, Indian and Bangladeshi people.

I recall working on 'brain drain' and population decline research in the late 1990s.

Global trends at the start of the 2000s resulted in the arrival of migrants from Portugal, South East Asia and the Philippines who filled vacancies predominantly within the food processing and the health and social care sectors.

Subsequently, and following the expansion of the European Union in 2004, there was a shift in the scale and pattern of migration with unprecedented levels of migration from Eastern European countries (most notably Poland and Lithuania). Now, of the 1.8million people that live in Northern Ireland, 80,000 were born outside the UK or Ireland.

The most recent trend in inward migration peaked in 2007, just before the global downturn, when it is estimated that close to 12,500 net migrants came here. This has fallen to 4,500 per annum currently. The top three reasons for coming are given as work, family or education and a look at the economic activity rates of our migrant population in the Census data shows rates that are considerably higher than the whole economy average.

For example, economic activity rates of Polish people here is 86% compared to a whole economy average of 73%.

Towards the end of 2009 I worked on a report, published by the Department for Employment and Learning, which aimed to quantify the economic, labour market and skills impacts of migrant workers in Northern Ireland.

The headline from that report was that migrant workers had made a significant positive contribution to the Northern Ireland economy.

Between 2004 and 2008, new arrivals to Northern Ireland contributed £1.2bn to the local economy. To put that in context, at the time that was on a par with the contribution that the construction sector was making to the economy here.

Beyond the statistics, our research at that time found our new residents had a positive influence on the efficiency of local workers and contributed new ideas to firms.

They also had a positive influence on the tourism industry through the development of new air routes and helped establish links with potential trading partners in their home countries.

Again, to break away from the statistics, new residents have helped our public services, particularly health and care services, to continue functioning and made a significant contribution to the cultural diversity and attractiveness of Northern Ireland.

A good friend of mine who emigrated from here to New Zealand summed it up, I think, when he tweeted: "As a nation whose people have sought refuge from famine, oppression and poverty for centuries…Ireland needs to be vocal right now."

Our experience of immigration in Northern Ireland has been largely positive. People from other places have come here and played a valuable part in enriching our towns and cities. Refugees, given the chance, could do the same.

In next week's Economy Watch, we hear from Ulster Bank chief economist Richard Ramsey

Belfast Telegraph

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