Progressives need to do more to build support for asylum and immigration

A new report from the Refugee Council tries to explode myths about asylum-seekers, that they're only after benefits - but the public still think otherwise.

Jill Rutter works for a charity supporting refugees and migrants and is an associate fellow of the Institute for Public Policy Research. She is writing in a personal capacity

“Chance or Choice” (pdf), a new research report from the Refugee Council, tries to explode the myth that asylum-seekers choose to come to the UK because benefit levels are higher. Instead, many endangered people do not set out with the intention of reaching these shores; their eventual destination is often determined for them by people smugglers.

Endangered Somalis, for example, may flee to Nairobi where they contact people smugglers who provide forged travel documents and flight tickets, charging about £7,000 for those hoping to travel from Kenya to western Europe.

Despite the expense, the use of the smuggler is often the only option available to endangered people fleeing civil war or threats to their life and safety. Many do not have valid passports and British consulates are reluctant to issue visas to would-be refugees.

The Refugee Council’s intention, in publishing the research report, is to recast the national narrative about asylum and challenge images of benefit tourists who deliberately set off for the UK because we are a “soft touch”.

But as an attempt to change public perceptions, via the media, about asylum-seekers, it is surprisingly inept. Readers of tabloid newspapers and visitors to northern France are also being flooded with images of Afghan refugees, sleeping rough in makeshift camps or in alleyways around Paris’s Gare du Nord. These are a group of people who have every intention of coming to the UK, usually to join family already here.

The Refugee Council’s report flies in the face of other media images, “common sense” perceptions. It leaves the reader with a nasty feeling of manipulation and will probably do little to change public attitudes to refugees. Crucially, the publication of Chance or Choice shows once again why pro-asylum and pro-migration progressives need to up their game when it comes to communications and community relations.

Continued failure by progressives to build public support for asylum and migration restricts the Government’s capacity to introduce better policies. How often have ministers said to refugee charities “we would love to do this, but there is simply no public support for such a policy”?

So what do progressives need to do to change the national narrative about asylum and immigration?

Obviously, the language used by the political elite is important and in recent years both main political parties have stressed their tough and strict approach to asylum and immigration. This is despite research evidence that shows the limited effectiveness of this approach – focussing on the problems associated with immigration reinforces the idea that immigration is out of control.

Research tells us that about 20 per cent of the public are pro-migration and about 20 per cent of people oppose all immigration. But the remaining 60 per cent of the population are not vehemently anti-migration. They form the middle ground and for them grassroots discourses are important.

Those who support the rights of migrants need to acknowledge the concerns of this middle ground about migration, many of which are bound up with issues such as economic security and a fear of globalisation. Progressives need to talk to the middle ground and slowly unpick their views.

Migration talk needs to happen at a local level in the myriad of local political spaces that we occupy – political party and trade union meetings, places of worship, pubs and so on. We should encourage not fear such discussions.

The human stories of refugees and migrants are also an effective way of changing attitudes and those working for progressive organisations need to ensure that these are disseminated as widely as possible in all types of media. Community and local political leadership that supports diversity and migration also has a role to play in shaping public attitudes. Activities, such as football and gardening that bring migrants and non-migrants together are also effective in changing attitudes.

Immigration, including the forced migration of refugees, is a phenomenon that is here to stay. It is part of the modern world. For progressives and pro-migrant organisations there is no quick and easy solution that will make the British public more supportive of refugees and migrants.

We need to influence national debates effectively. We also need to influence grassroots community relations. The latter is a long, slow process, but something we must not neglect if we are to shift public attitudes and give our political leaders permission to support the human rights of migrant populations.

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