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Migration: beyond "what people think"

A skewed debate on immigration has lost touch with reality and become fuel for fear, anxiety and prejudice. Never have reasoned argument and evidence been more needed.

An opinon-poll by Ipsos-Mori in August 2015 showed that concern about immigration is at an all-time high with half of the British public now identifying it as the primary issue about which they are concerned. Britain is full. Our systems are at breaking point. If we are required to accept more of the tens of thousands of migrants and refugees arriving in Europe on an almost daily basis the country would surely collapse. People are right to be concerned. Or so the story goes.

But the story is misleading in key respects. I am tired of hearing that the British public is concerned about migration, as if it were the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I am tired of hearing that “what people think” about migration is more important than anything else.

Let me explain.

We know that there are plenty of problems with opinion-polls. But my biggest frustration right now is that public concern about migration is driving the political and policy response to the unfolding crisis in Europe regardless of whether it bears any relationship to reality. This is despite the fact that people regularly overestimate the scale of migration and that they have very different attitudes depending on which groups of migrants are being discussed. 

This focus on public concern is nothing new. From the moment that New Labour came into power in 1997 it was obsessed with being seen to be tough on migration. This was partly to legitimate the arrival of large numbers of migrant workers from the European Union and elsewhere, but also to prove to its critics that Labour was not a "soft touch". It could, and would, protect the interests of "hard-working people", historically Labour's primary voters. Then, having lost power in 2010, senior Labour figures started queuing up to express regret over the party’s record on immigration and the fact that Labour had not been “sufficiently alive to people's concerns” over the matter.  

I can attest, as someone who worked at the Home Office from 2000-02 when David Blunkett was in charge, that the government of the day was very much alive to concern about immigration. Every week a photocopied set of newspaper headlines would turn up on our desks as a salient reminder of the policy imperative to "do something". Then as now, the media and particularly the newspapers drove the migration debate and ultimately the development of policy. 

And the result? Wave after wave of new immigration legislation designed to prove that the government was responding to public concern. Each act not only made life considerably more difficult for migrants coming to Britain for work, study or protection but ratcheted up the issue further still. It is no coincidence that concern about immigration has shown a sharp and continuous rise since 1997 when New Labour came into power. 

But there is very little evidence that public concern is directly related to migration.  That's not to deny that migration has consequences, both good and bad. Of course it does. But migration is treated as a zero-sum game. If someone is struggling to survive on a zero-hours contract it’s because migrants are taking all the jobs. If people are unable to access social housing it’s down to migrants jumping the queue. If there is a waiting-list for an operation it’s because of "health tourism". Very few people actually explore - or even consider - the relationship between these issues and migration. Both correlation and causality are assumed.

And the moment that politicians acknowledge that people are right to be concerned about the impact of migration on jobs, housing and other public services they legitimate these concerns and take the focus away from some of the underlying causes.

These include a labour market that operates to benefit employers who wish to maintain a flexible workforce to reduce costs and maximise profit; the failure to build social housing and the sale of existing stock; and demographic changes which have led to greater demands on the health and care services, and rising expectations that expensive drugs and techniques should be available free of charge at the point of delivery regardless of the cost. 

The acknowedgment and legitimation of these factors in turn amplifies them, in ways that are very handy to those with an interest in doing so - including politicians themselves. By contrast, I’ve yet to hear a politician challenge public concern about migration or suggest that there might be other explanations for what people are concerned about. Far easier to go along with it and allow the migrants to take the blame.

The fact is that concern about migration is often a reflection of underlying anxieties and fears about economic and social change, rather than migration itself. Migrants, in turn, have become what the late sociologist Stanley Cohen calls the new "folk devils" whose presence in our society reflects and reinforces public unease about actual and perceived threats. 

This threat-perception includes uncertainty associated with rapid technological changes and globalisation which have fundamentally altered the nature of our communities and social relationships. It includes fear of under- and unemployment which make it difficult for families to support themselves without relying on a welfare system being pushed back in front of their eyes. And it includes growing feelings of insecurity in a world of numerous and often ill-defined "enemies", alongside a growing distrust in the political establishment.

In this context migration acts as a "touchstone" issue. It embodies these wider anxieties and creates a narrative of blame and recrimination through which people are able to make sense of what’s going on.

So when I hear people saying that the government is right to be tough on migration, to hold the line, because of public concern about migration - I tell them that quite frankly I don’t care. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about people or the issues that affect them on a day-to-day basis. But I am tired of sloppy thinking and assumptions about the relationships between migration and social and economic change, and of hearing migration being blamed for problems go well beyond the presence of migrants in our society.

When New Labour came into power it also talked about the need for evidence-based policy-making. Right now that’s exactly what we need: policy-making based on research that unpacks the relationship between migration and the changes that people see around them rather than on fear, anxiety or straightforward prejudice. In turn, we need a public and political debate on migration that acknowledges that migration is only part of a complex story of social, economic and political change. Then, and only then, will I sit up and listen to "what people think". 


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