Brad Blitz on the truth about immigration's really not the problem

PUBLISHED: 13:39 21 July 2016 | UPDATED: 15:30 15 February 2017

Migrants step over a fence to enter in the Eurotunnel area, in Calais, northern France, Wednesday, July 29, 2015. Migrants rushed the tunnel linking France and England repeatedly for a second night on Wednesday and one man was crushed by a truck in the chaos, deepening tensions surrounding the thousands of people camped in this northern French port city. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

Migrants step over a fence to enter in the Eurotunnel area, in Calais, northern France, Wednesday, July 29, 2015. Migrants rushed the tunnel linking France and England repeatedly for a second night on Wednesday and one man was crushed by a truck in the chaos, deepening tensions surrounding the thousands of people camped in this northern French port city. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

AP/Press Association Images

Immigration is an issue but it is not the issue. The Brexiteers overplayed their hand. These are two lessons of the referendum which Theresa May must grapple with in her first days as Prime Minister.

Digging through the numbers after the vote on June 23, it seems clear that age, employment status, geography and level of education proved more telling indicators of how people voted than fear of migrants. Meanwhile, contrary to the claims of Leavers, it has also become apparent that the UK cannot both rescind the right to free movement for EU nationals and enjoy the benefits of the Single Market. By exaggerating the threat of immigration, they have left the new PM with less room for negotiation in Brussels and the difficult task of selling a policy to a British public which, despite those horrific racist and xenophobic attacks in the days immediately following the vote, appears more sympathetic and more tolerant than the Brexiteers expected.

In the run-up to the Referendum, the British public was fed a diet of sensational stories which avoided any attempt to seriously analyse official data and at times confused intra-EU migration, asylum and refugee flows. Haters and opportunists presented an image of an external threat that was dangerous and destabilising.

Brexiteers called attention to figures published by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) which record net migration - a surplus of inward migrants - at 330,000. However, they failed to note that this statistic also includes British nationals returning to the UK. Moreover, the ONS data do not tell us about settlement, which is central to any discussion of immigration. In spite of legal provisions, free movement for EU nationals does not necessarily translate into settlement. The reality is that people come and go.

There are many barriers to long-term settlement, among them informal labour market discrimination, the cost of living in the receiving state, and currency fluctuations which depress income and thus deter people from staying on. In order to mitigate these, many migrants work between different countries and never actually make their home abroad. The ONS recently published analysis which explained why over the past five years, some 1.2 million non-nationals had applied for National Insurance (NI) Numbers which are required for formal work and access to state benefits. The enormous difference was the result of short-term migration to the UK - a vast number of migrants in the UK were in fact sojourners, not settlers.

Yet the Leave campaign put immigration front and centre and now May’s government faces the challenge of designing policies to fit. The problem is that both official data and public opinion tell a markedly different story from the one the British public were fed. As they brush aside the wreckage, the next government will soon realise that, not only did the Brexiteers frame the nature of the ‘threat’ inaccurately, but voters’ attitudes are more nuanced than projected, even after a decade of anti-immigrant media campaigns. These conclusions are born out of a close reading of public opinion datasets released in the last two months of the campaign.

Immigration policy tends to be constructed around two axes. The USA, Canada and Australia use ‘objective’ measures and points-based systems which prioritise skills, education, and language ability among applicants. States with less of an immigration history often give greater weight to cultural factors they believe promote integration. When formulating policy, governments test for negative public attitudes defined as material and symbolic threats. Material threats are usually things viewed as affecting resources, like housing and schooling. Symbolic threats are defined in cultural terms and raise questions over the nature of migrant integration as a result of differing beliefs and values.

With the exception of the unbridled Nigel Farage, the Leave camp overstated the material threats and misunderstood symbolic threats as expressed by the British electorate. We now know that the Leave vote was highest in areas which have fewer migrants and hence that competition over resources between British and non-British groups did not determine how people voted. What the results do tell us, however, is that contact matters. Those who worked or lived in areas where they met migrants did not view them as a threat and tended to prefer to remain in the European Union.

Data published by the European Social Survey between 2014 and 2015 record that only a very small proportion of those sampled in the UK, just 7 per cent, held absolutist views on immigration and wished to pull up the drawbridge altogether. Contrary to the idea for a global system of immigration as proposed by the Leave camp, UK respondents expressed measurably stronger opposition to immigration from poorer countries outside Europe than poorer countries in Europe. On key questions regarding the contribution immigrants make to the UK economy, society, and cultural life, those sampled were overwhelmingly neutral in their responses. They simply did not hold strong views about other EU nationals in the UK.

We also know the British public does not support the current restrictions on asylum. In Spring 2016, two major surveys recorded showed considerable sympathy towards refugees and widespread criticism of government policy. This was clearly evidenced in Amnesty International’s Refugees Welcome Index which measures people’s willingness to let refugees live in their countries, towns, neighbourhoods and homes. Brits are in fact more sympathetic and tolerant than their political leaders expected and race is not a factor.

Yet, in the face of a simplistic and untruthful media campaign, British public opinion shifted. The Pew Research Center, a polling organisation attached to a major US foundation that has been gathering data on public attitudes in the UK and elsewhere over the past ten years, recorded a noticeable change between Spring 2015 and Spring 2016. Where British public opinion was measurably more favourable to the European Union over the previous nine years, by Spring 2016, some 44 per cent of respondents expressed views that were unfavourable to the idea of EU. Many would like to suggest that immigration and the presence of EU nationals in the UK accounts for this shift. Again, the picture is more complex.

Public opinion data record that British attitudes towards migrants are shaped more by a sense of fairness than attitudes regarding race, nationality or even skills and language. On these points, the UK public is neutral. What is clear, however, is that the British public still believe that benefits draw migrants to the UK, and that access to social rights should be conditional, not automatically available to EU citizens. Previous data from the 2008-09 ESS survey record that in the UK, almost 50% feel new arrivals should acquire the right to social benefits only after they have worked and paid taxes for at least a year. This issue was raised by David Cameron in Brussels earlier this year, yet the Leave campaign militated on the grounds that even though he secured concessions, he had not achieved enough for Britain. The most recent public opinion data suggest that on this point, the Leavers’ criticism is exaggerated.

Other issues including Islamic State and Climate Change are perceived as greater threats to the UK than immigration, though arguably concerns over levels of intra-EU migration now suggest that the principle of non-discrimination on the basis of nationality has been weakened. Similar attitudes have been reported across the EU. The challenge now for the new government will be developing migration policies that address concerns for fairness alongside the more potent problem that the public mistrusts political elites.

If there is one further conclusion from the latest public opinion data, it is that racist and chauvinistic views, as exploited by UKIP and the Leave campaign, are not strongly held by the British public. In spite of recent attacks against EU nationals and xenophobic opportunism, we should broadcast that message loudly to migrants in the UK.


Brad K. Blitz is Professor of International Politics at Middlesex University and Senior Fellow at the Global Migration Centre at the Graduate Institute in Geneva.

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