Some slightly scary truths about the perceptions and the reality of immigration in the UK.
Along with millions of people all over the world, the Broadway musical “Hamilton”, has become my latest obsession. One of the better known moments in the play sees the protagonist, Alexander Hamilton, the USA’s first Treasury Secretary, and the Marquis de Lafayette share the moment below:
That line has consistently received such a positive reaction from audience members, that the writers have had to add in several bars of music to accommodate it. The reason for that reaction is that it stands out as a pro-immigration sentiment in a climate where such a thing is as rare as a woman on a US bank note (Sorry, Alex).
As we enter the month of the referendum on whether or not the UK should stay in the European Union, every single news bulletin, newspaper, topical satire and pub conversation in Britain seems saturated with discussion of immigration. Meanwhile, 6000 refugees (obstinately still called migrants by the BBC et al), struggle to survive within view of Britain’s shores, their futures in the hands of us, the UK electorate.
As an example of how dominating the immigration debate is, here are the front page headlines from all of today’s UK-wide newspapers – 1 June 2016:
Daily Mail: Immigration Revolution! Boris and Gove: We’ll bring in tough Australian style points system to slash arrivals from the EU
The Daily Telegraph: Boris: Learn English if you want to move to the UK
The Times: Pledge to curb immigration after Brexit
The i: Migration fears give poll lead to Brexit
Daily Mirror: Mothers of All Evil (this has nothing to do with immigration or Brexit. Well, there’s always one!)
Daily Express: Migrants pay just £100 to invade Britain
The Sun: Haul Aboard: Migrant boat crooks on CCTV, 100s of illegals feared here
The Guardian: EU migration is forcing up house prices, says Grayling
You can’t make this up. Literally every single UK daily paper apart from the Mirror has today featured an anti-immigration headline.
But where is all this panic coming from?
Clearly the UK has seen a massive influx of foreign nationals to produce this level of constant panic about immigration, right? The reality is that once we take a closer look at actual data as opposed to media hype, we very easily begin to see a disturbing trend in the UK – and it’s not immigration.
Until very recently I responded to my husband’s outrage at the levels of racism and anti-immigration here compared with back home (New Zealand) by saying that New Zealand had plenty of race issues as well (which is true), that as New Zealanders the hypocrisy of the nation that invaded Aotearoa, claimed it for Britain then never apologised being worried about immigration was much more likely to occur to us than if we had been born here (which is also true), and that we were so very far away from any other land mass that our comparative homogeneity was sure to be a reason for our lower levels of immigration panic.
But then I read something as part of my PhD research that revealed the reality.
In a 2002 UK-wide MORI poll, the public estimation of how much of the UK population belonged to ethnic minorities was 23%. What was the actual figure at the time? 6%. Close to a quarter of the public perception (Fraser, 2015). And who can blame the British population? When every single day’s news encourages us to believe that this is a massive issue?
In the lead up to last year’s election, partly in response this this kind of widespread panic, The Guardian released results of Opinium Research polling on the subject. The most recent census in Britain (2011) showed that only 11.9% of all the people living in Britain were born elsewhere. The public perception, however, is that this number is nearly three times that proportion – 31%!! 1% of those polled even believed the percentage of immigrants living in Britain to be between 90 and 100%!
Perhaps even more worrying, was the response to the question: “Immigrants coming to this country should embrace a British way of life rather than hold on to the lifestyle they had at home”. 48% of respondents strongly agreed with this statement, and a net 78% in total agreed with it.
And what about my erstwhile belief that New Zealand must be much less ethnically diverse? Also completely incorrect, as it turns out. In the 2013 census, 25.2% of people living in New Zealand were born overseas. More than double the proportion in Britain. And of those foreign-born New Zealanders, which was the most common country of birth? England. Not even the UK as a whole. Just England by itself, with Scotland coming in a promising 10th.
In terms of the UK’s refugee population, the figures reveal an absolutely minuscule intake. Refugees make up an estimated 0.19% of the UK population. Compared to many other European countries, the UK received a much smaller number of asylum claims in 2015 – only 2000 compared to 60,000 in Germany, 26,000 in Sweden, 8000 in the Netherlands and 3000 in Spain and France (The Guardian). Britain rejected 60% of those claims, and yet the perception remains that Britain should reduce even further the number of people allowed to become resident here.
There is clearly a huge disconnect between the perception of the rate of immigration into Britain and the reality. The British public are trapped in a viscous cycle of talking about immigration until it becomes a huge political issue which fuels the perception that it actually is a huge issue. Meanwhile, the numbers remain small, and the UK one of the least ethnically diverse parts of Europe.
It is clear that on June 23rd, many people will vote on whether or not the UK should stay in the EU based at least partially on issues relating to immigration. To place Britain’s future in a large and complicated Union – which is traditionally and predominantly a trade-based union – on such an emotive issue could well turn out to be problematic (e.g. Mitchell, 2016). But far more concerning is that this debate reveals attitudes that are misinformed at best, xenophobic, hypocritical and self-destructive at worst.
As an immigrant to the UK, from a Commonwealth nation, with parents born in the UK, here on a scholarship selected by the Queen’s representative, I can assure you that it is in no way easy to immigrate. The rights of foreign students like me have been slowly eroded as a direct result of the perceptions I have outlined briefly here. Had I undertaken my PhD 3 years earlier, I would have been able to stay if I were offered a job. Now, not only must I leave immediately after completing my studies, but all visa application fees have gone up dramatically and now include extra charges for things like healthcare and limitations on how much I can travel. An average international student funds 4 UK students to undertake the same or similar course of study, but the process to do so has become part of the ‘hostile environment’ Teresa May promised with her recent Immigration Bill (Kirkup).
I love the UK, I thoroughly enjoy living here, I’ve met so many wonderful people and I will really miss it when I leave. Therefore I am all the more concerned that if the dramatic and consistent misconceptions regarding immigration don’t come more into line with the reality, the result will be a spiritually and materially impoverished nation-state.
Bashabi Fraser “Reflections on Nation and Narration” in Klaus Peter Muller (ed.) Scotland 2014 and Beyond – Coming of Age and a Loss of Innocence? (Scottish Studies International, 2015, p. 385).
Statistics New Zealand “2013 Census QuickStats about culture and identity” <http://www.stats.govt.nz/Census/2013-census/profile-and-summary-reports/quickstats-culture-identity/birthplace.aspx>
BBC News, “The Papers”, 1 June 2016, <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs/the_papers>
Dr Scott Blinder “UK Public Opinion towards immigration”, 2015, <http://www.migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/briefings/uk-public-opinion-toward-immigration-overall-attitudes-and-level-concern>
David Mitchell “The EU Referendum should be a matter for Parliament”, The Guardian 29 May 2016, <http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/may/29/eu-referendum-parliament-leaders-david-cameron-david-mitchell>
James Kirkup, The Daily Telegraph, 25 May 2012 <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/immigration/9291483/Theresa-May-interview-Were-going-to-give-illegal-migrants-a-really-hostile-reception.html>