Fiscal arguments ‘of the head’ are not always the best way of defending immigration

Gabriella Jozwiak reports from the Migrant's Rights Network event last night on young people's attitude to immigration.

Gabriella Jozwiak reports from the Migrant’s Rights Network event last night on young people’s attitudes to immigration.

Photo courtesy of Jason Wen and Migrants Rights Network

Young people in the UK want compassion to underpin the debate about future immigration policies. In stark constast to the economic arguments trotted out by politicians, under-30s last night told a London audience their experiences of migration were based on real people – not numbers.

The debate was hosted by charity Migrant’s Rights Network, which over the past two months has asked young people to voice their views about immigration. Panellist and British Youth Council chair Marc Kidson made the case for politicians to pay more attention to young people’s opinions:

“Politically the debate about Europe is dominated by opinions of older people,” he said. “When we see nationwide polls about staying in Europe, there seems to be a majority that favour pulling out. But when you poll younger people, especially those under 25, there’s a majority in favour of staying in. Both voices don’t get heard in the way that they should in a debate that, essentially, is about our future,” Kidson said.

The Open Generation project has resulted in four films and a website portraying the lives and opinions of young immigrant and non-immigrant Britons. They challenge the myths reported in the media and aim to shape the debate on immigration and free-movement ahead of the May European Parliamentary elections.

None of the young people’s testimonies backed suggestions that immigrants are draining the benefits system or stealing their jobs. Instead, they describe the benefits of being immigrants, their descendents, or living in a diverse community.

In a clip submitted to the website, Jo Living said her sheltered experience of growing up in white, middle-class Essex, studying at Cambridge University and working in banking was “enriched and made fuller thanks to the immigrants and diversity of culture I’ve experienced”. “I’m definitely pro immigration,” she added.

Laila Aziz told how: “I wake up every day and meet different people in the UK, it makes my life so much richer.”

The films explore difficulties faces by young immigrants. One, Romanians 101, is a mock guide to the “salient traits” of Romanians. It portrays young Romanian immigrants doing everyday activities. “This is how we climb the stairs,” says the voiceover, as the film shows a woman walking up stairs in the same way as a ‘British’ person would. “If we climb very high flights of stairs, we tend to get shortness of breath,” it joked.

In the panel debate, Kidson said fiscal arguments “of the head” were an unhelpful way to challenge negative opinions of migration – an issue “of the heart”.

“One of the dangers in political argument is that all counter arguments to those who want to restrict immigration are around the economy,” said Kidson. “They reduce all of that fabulous diversity to numbers. If it comes down to what you feel your community is like – whether you feel it’s changed too much or whether you value diversity – you’re not going to win people over by saying that they value the billions migrants bring to the economy,” he added.

National Union of Students vice president Rachel Wenstone attacked government policies that restrict foreign students studying in England. “Education has no nationality,” she stated.

“Immigration policies treat people as a number, a figure, and an amount of money to be exploited. The question of net migration is particularly brutal. We don’t ask how much compassion we should have for people fleeing some of the worst conflict areas in the world, how important is it to keep families together, and what about the rights of people to love who they want to love?”

Many young people in the room agreed that defending free movement was a primary concern. They didn’t want to be held back from studying and working in other European countries in the future.

Writer Kiri Kankhwende called for communities to work together to defend immigrant’s rights:

“The government’s hostile environment campaign would have us believe that you can hive off a section of the population and that it doesn’t affect anyone else,” she said. “It doesn’t make any sense. If you create an unwelcoming situation for migrants it affects everyone else. We are being co-opted to look at our neighbours as immigrants first and people second.”

The voices collected by Open Generation showed a unified front of young people ready to defend immigration and free-movement. Migrant’s Rights Network director Don Flynn said the project would continue to grow ahead of the 2015 general election. He urged campaigners to heed young people’s call for compassion. “Mandela didn’t overthrow apartheid with an economic argument,” he said.

Gabriella Jozwiak is a freelance journalist

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