7 myths about immigration

On the face of it, our many misconceptions about immigration form a very depressing picture. Yet more accurate information can shift public opinion in a more positive direction.

Ian Sinclair
7 July 2015
How many more can we take?

Is immigration really a "taboo" topic? Flickr/Gideon. Some rights reserved.

A confession: I don’t find immigration very interesting. In fact in many ways I find it quite dull. I know, I know, it is an important topic, but shamefully I have real trouble garnering enough enthusiasm to follow the latest developments as closely as I know I should. However, the level of debate surrounding immigration leading up to May’s General Election frustrated me so much I felt I should write some kind of response to the ignorant assertions and straight out lies endlessly repeated across the media, often with little push back from presenters or the audience.

The misinformation ranges from the blatant and sometimes racist (Nigel Farage and UKIP passim) to more subtle forms such as the implicit assumptions behind the right-wing policy proposals coming out of the mouths of so-called respectable, centrist politicians. For example, Labour’s proposal to make EU migrants wait for two years before claiming out of work benefits is based on the false assumption a large number of people are coming to the UK to claim benefits.

Labour’s caving in to the right on immigration means many of the lies have gone unchallenged, with the debate moving sharply to the right. No wonder, then, “the British public generally holds an exaggerated view of the scale and impacts of immigration in the UK” and that “opinion on immigration among British voters is broadly negative”, according to research conducted for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration. A 2014 Ipsos Mori poll found “People from the UK… think immigrants make up twice the proportion of the population as is really the case.” Likewise, a 2013 YouGov survey found the public overestimate the number of EU immigrants claiming unemployment benefit by a factor of ten. “It is unhealthy for public debate to be so ill-informed – and for politicians (of all parties) to shy away from confronting such widespread popular misconceptions”, notes YouGov’s Peter Kellner.

Luckily there is hope buried within this depressing morass. Because if the public’s broadly negative view of immigration “is based on low levels of knowledge about immigration, and generally not connected to direct experience of immigration impacts”, then surely more accurate information can shift public opinion in a more positive direction.

So, for my own sanity and as a future resource for me and others, below is a list of seven of the most persistent myths surrounding immigration and, more importantly, evidence and facts to counter them.

Myth One: Immigration is a taboo subject, everybody is afraid to talk about immigration

“One common gripe is that ‘no one is allowed to talk about immigration’”, writes Michael Rundell. “This will come as a surprise to anyone who scans the front pages of the Sun, Mail or Express, which rarely fail to feature a shouty headline about scrounging migrants or health tourists.”

In reality, as commentator Mehdi Hasan argued in 2011, “There is no conspiracy of silence on immigration. We talk about little else.” A 2014 report by the British Futures thinktank agrees: “Immigration is the issue that everyone is talking about. Repeated surveys show it is neck-and-neck with the economy as number one issue for the public now, and will be, come the general election.”

As Hasan notes “The very first question of the first televised leader’s debate in British political history [in 2010] was on the subject of immigration.” Immigration was also one of the central discussion topics during the 2015 ITV leadership debate.

The public’s interest is likely energised by continuous public statements by our leaders. In 2011 Prime Minister David Cameron said “This time last year, we said we would listen to people’s concerns and get immigration under control. Today I can confidently say that we are getting there.” In the same year, in a speech in Munich, Cameron argued that immigrants “speak the language of their new home.” In 2007, in his first conference speech as Prime Minister, Gordon Brown promised “British jobs for British workers.” In 2004 the then Prime Minister Tony Blair said the public’s concern about immigration “are real concerns; they are not figments of racist imagination; and they have to be tackled precisely in order to sustain a balanced and sensible argument about migration.”

Myth Two: Immigrants take jobs away from British people and reduce wages

First, note how this popular myth directly contradicts Myth Three.

In 2009 the Guardian reported “Claims that migrants ‘take our jobs’ and ‘cut our pay’ are misplaced and wrong, according to research published today by the Institute for Public Policy Research.” The study found no evidence that migration from Eastern Europe since 2004 had had any substantial negative impact on either jobs or wage levels.

Little seems to have changed six years later. In its 2015 General Election briefing, the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) observed “There is still no evidence of an overall negative impact of immigration on jobs” and “wages” and that “any negative impacts on wages of less skilled groups are small.”

Answering the question of whether immigration negatively effects jobs or wages, Jonathan Portes, the Director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, notes “The short answer seems to be: not much.” Portes continues: “It’s fairly obvious that wages are generally higher and jobs easier to come by in areas of high immigration like London, while many low migration areas have relatively depressed labour markets.”

How could this be? Portes explains: “People who say this… usually don’t actually know or understand basic economics. More immigrant workers do increase the supply of labour. But, because immigrants earn money, spend money, set up businesses and so on, they also increase the demand for labour. And it’s true that, if an immigrant takes a job, then a British worker can’t take that job – but it doesn’t meant he or she won’t find another one that may have been created, directly or indirectly, as a result of immigration.”

Myth Three: Immigrants come to the UK to claim benefits, creating a real problem of benefit tourism

In October 2013 Prime Minster David Cameron said the public’s concern about benefit tourism – migrants coming to the UK to claim benefits rather than work – was “widespread and understandable.”

In contrast, in the same month Business Secretary Vince Cable noted “there is very little evidence of benefit tourism from people coming from Eastern Europe.” Portes concurs, stating “the evidence that a significant number of people come here just to claim benefits is very thin.” So thin, in fact, that in 2013 a spokesperson for the European Employment Commissioner publicly stated the UK Government had “completely failed to come up with any specific evidence” to show that the UK benefits system was being abused. It turns out the European Commission had been asking the UK Government for evidence for three years. Embarrassingly a 2013 classified Home Office report confirmed the British government doesn’t keep any figures on how many European Union nationals claim welfare payments in the UK.

The reality, according to a 2014 University College London study, is that European migrants overwhelmingly come to the UK to work. Eastern Europeans and Western Europeans have an employment rate of 81 percent and 70 percent, respectively. The study goes on to estimate that migrants coming to the UK since 2000 have been 43 percent less likely to claim benefits or tax credits compared to the UK-born workforce. This conclusion is supported by the Centre for Economic Performance at LSE that concluded this year “Immigrants, especially in recent years, tend to be younger and better educated than the UK-born and less likely to be unemployed.”

This myth feeds off a wider popular myth about welfare – that people can have a comfortable life living on welfare and that they may even be better off on benefits than in work. However, a plethora of research and first-hand experience has shown this not to be the case.

Moreover, this myth is also based on the assumption that higher benefits will act as a draw for migrants. However, a 2011 study from the Institute for the Study of Labour in Bonn found no correlation between levels of unemployment benefit and immigration to different countries in the European Union, with the authors explicitly rejecting the concept of a "welfare magnet". As it happens, the Guardian report on the study also notes “Almost no evidence has been produced to show that in international terms UK benefits are more generous than other EU countries.”

An interesting aside: in Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, France and Ireland the number of British people claiming unemployment benefit is almost three times as high as the number of nationals from these countries receiving parallel benefits in the UK. Moreover, often the benefits in these countries are more generous than benefits in the UK.

See also Myth Four.

Myth Four: Immigrants are a strain on public services, such as hospitals and schools

A 2014 study by the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration at University College London found European immigrants to the UK have paid more in taxes than they received in benefits, helping to relieve the fiscal burden on UK-born workers and contributing to the financing of public services. “A key concern in the public debate on migration is whether immigrants contribute their fair share to the tax and welfare systems”, notes co-author Professor Christian Dustmann. “Our new analysis draws a positive picture of the overall fiscal contribution made by recent immigrant cohorts, particularly of immigrants arriving from the EU.”

Portes notes that while there can be local pressures on public services, as these services are funded by taxation, and as EU migrants tend to pay more into the system than they take out, “overall, stopping EU migration would cost public services more in lost tax revenue than it would save in reduced demand.”

In addition, it is important to remember foreign nationals play a key role in the NHS. According to recent figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre, 11 percent of NHS staff are not British. This figure rises to 26 percent for doctors. As the British Medical Association has noted, without non-British staff “many NHS services would struggle to provide effective care to their patients.”

When it comes to schools, the influence of immigration can be surprising, argues Portes: “Despite the pressures of a growing population and a very large number of children for whom English is not the first language, London schools significantly outperform the rest of the country, especially for more disadvantaged children. And recent research suggests that the presence of children from Eastern Europe actually improved the educational attainment of kids here already.”

See also Myth Three.

Myth Five: Health tourism is a big problem for the UK

A 2013 Guardian report highlighted new government commissioned research that “flies in the face of assertions by Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, that the tourists cost the health service money.”

The study found that more people leave the UK seeking medical treatment abroad than arrive in this country to receive care. Moreover, the study found that medical tourism is a lucrative source of income for the NHS (and the wider economy), with the 18 hospitals deemed the top destinations for overseas patients earning £42m in 2010.

In addition, in 2013 Guardian columnist Zoe Williams reported that there were more than 20 private Polish medical centres in London, as well as in Manchester, Reading, Bristol and Glasgow. After speaking to Polish people using these clinics, Williams explains they are used for a variety of reasons including the perception the NHS provides a poor service, because of long NHS wait times, the belief Polish nurses are better trained than UK nurses and because of the language barrier. “Many Polish immigrants will go to some lengths to avoid NHS ‘tourism’, up to and including paying for their care”, writes Williams.

Myth Six: Immigrants are a drain on social housing and often get preferential treatment

This myth was given a boost in 2009 when the Labour Government said it wanted to give local people greater priority for social housing. However, as the Guardian reported in 2009 “The allegation that new migrants are jumping the queue for council housing and housing association homes was nailed as a myth by research recently published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.” The study found that more than 60% of migrants who had come to Britain in the past five years were living in privately rented accommodation, with most newly arrived migrants and asylum seekers actually banned from access to social housing.

A 2009 University College London paper that found immigrants from A8 countries – those who arrived after EU enlargement in 2004 – “are far less likely to live in social housing” than the rest of the UK population.

In 2015 the Centre for Economic Performance at LSE noted “There is still no evidence of an overall negative impact of immigration” on social housing.

Myth Seven: Immigrants commit more crime than British people

“Crime in neighbourhoods that have experienced mass immigration from eastern Europe over the past 10 years has fallen significantly, according to research that challenges a widely held view over the impact of foreigners in the UK”, noted the Guardian about a 2013 report published by LSE. “Rates of burglary, vandalism and car theft all dropped following the arrival of migrants from Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and seven other countries after they joined the European Union in 2004.” The Guardian story quoted Brian Bell, a research fellow at LSE: "The view that foreigners commit more crime is not true. The truth is that immigrants are just like natives: if they have a good job and a good income they don't commit crime."

These findings echo a 2008 report prepared for the Association of Chief Police Officers, which found offending rates among eastern European immigrants were in line with the rate of offending in the general population. A senior source with in-depth knowledge of the report explained: "Any rise has been broadly proportionate to the number of people from those communities coming into this country. People are saying crime is rising because of this influx. Given 1 million people have come in, that doesn't make sense as crime is significantly down."

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