Too often public opinion about migration is based on false information

80 per cent of the people arriving in the UK over the last year for work had a visa tied to a job to start when they got here

 

For years, immigration has consistently ranked among the top concerns in surveys of the British public. In response, political leaders have repeatedly made efforts to show that they can bring it under control.

During the last election, the Conservative Party reiterated its ‘ambition’ to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands and it has since made attempts to make the UK a less appealing destination for migrants by reducing their access to health, welfare or education services.

And yet the views expressed in public opinion surveys are often based on misinformation and false assumptions. This matters because it restricts the available space for envisioning and debating different approaches to the issue.

For over 15 years, a majority of respondents to public opinion surveys from Ipsos Mori have considered there to be ‘too many immigrants’. Yet the same organisation has also found that on average people also over-estimate the amount of migrants that there are in the country by double.

Similarly, the British Social Attitudes survey from 2013 found that a majority of the British population considered that the costs of EU and non-EU workers outweighed the benefits.  In contrast, research has found that between 2000 and 2011 immigrants have made a net contribution to the country’s finances, paying in more in taxes than they use in services and benefits. 

A further range of myths, such as that there is a vastly greater number of asylum seekers in the UK than is the case, is addressed in the latest publication from Class and Migrants Rights Network, Changing the debate on migration.

However, the problem is not just that people don’t know the facts: it is that they don’t trust political leaders to tell them the truth. Policies that are based on being tough and in control, such as setting targets, have failed. As a result, the British public has been consistently dissatisfied with the way its governments have tried to deal with immigration.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats suffered from declining public confidence on the issue and polling after their term in government has found half the population to consider immigration to still be the most important issue facing the country today. Attempts to be tough and in control have neither reduced immigration levels nor raised public confidence in our political leaders.

In a global era, international migration is an inescapable reality. Furthermore, migration, particularly between parts of the world with long-established historical connections, cannot be easily switched on or off.

For this reason immigration policies often fail at meeting their declared objectives. But that is not to say that immigration is out of control. For example, the latest migration statistics showed that of the people arriving in the UK over the last year for work, 80 per cent were arriving with a visa tied to a job to start when they got here.

Over the last parliament, the slight decline and more recent rise of net migration to Britain could be more easily explained by the national economy and availability of jobs than by government efforts to manage the phenomenon. As noted by Philip Legrain, those who arrive often do the jobs that locals don’t want, or start their own businesses which contribute further to the economy.

At the moment, false assumptions and distrust mean that few public figures openly consider what our country might look like without an overbearing focus on being tough and getting the numbers down. A constructive debate need not push for open borders, but at least should provide a chance to imagine the pros and cons of alternative ways of living with migration.

Simon McMahon is a research fellow at Coventry University

To download a copy of the pamphlet by Class and the Migrants Rights Network, click here

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