Immigration Debate About More Than Cutting Numbers

15/12/2011 12:25 GMT | Updated 14/02/2012 10:12 GMT

Some 18 months after the general election, the British remain as sceptical about immigration and politicians' ability to manage it as they were in the dying days of Gordon Brown's government.

According to the German Marshall Fund's annual Transatlantic Trends: Immigration survey, published today, the British are also at least twice as likely to rate immigration as the most important issue facing the country as the French, Germans and Italians.

At first glance the findings of Transatlantic Trends appear to validate noisy and sweeping demands for immigration to be cut, apparently at all costs. But will reduced migrant numbers assuage public concerns? And is immigration really more of a problem in the UK than elsewhere in Europe and the U.S?

Some of the answers may be revealed through a closer examination of the survey's findings. On the numbers game that dominates the debate, the British are evidently worried about levels of immigration. Just over half stated that there are too many immigrants in the country. This explains the Government's unwavering commitment to reducing inflows drastically, with Home Secretary Theresa May asserting that it is what "the British people want."

Here it's important to distinguish between perceptions and realities. According to Transatlantic Trends, the British estimate on average that the foreign-born population of the country is 32%. Those who are given the actual figure of 11% are less likely to say there are too many immigrants.

Misperceptions also persist about the number of immigrants coming to the UK, which has remained fairly stable in recent years. The record figures for 2010 widely reported last month refer to net immigration - the difference between inflows and outflows. The increase is mainly because fewer people have emigrated.

And claims that hostility is highest in areas most affected by immigration fall apart when scrutinised. A recent report by the Migration Observatory found more resistance to cutting migrant numbers in the capital, including amongst British-born white Londoners.

It also noted that during the 1960s and 1970s, when immigration was much lower than it is today, even larger majorities thought that there were too many migrants in Britain.

So it does not necessarily follow that that less immigration will reassure sceptics. It may be more important that there is confidence that the system treats both migrants and residents fairly and even-handedly. Although the public tend to trust the Conservatives on this issue more than Labour, there are no indications in this year's survey that public trust is being restored. Only Italians are less satisfied with the way their Government is handling immigration.

Beyond the narrow frame of the numbers, there are a variety of reasons why the British may be more concerned than their European neighbours. Stories about migrants taking jobs or claiming benefits, housing or human rights appear in the press daily. They have become an integral component of wider debates about economic insecurity and youth unemployment exacerbated by cheap, flexible labour from abroad.

But remarkably, against the backdrop of the economic crisis, rising unemployment and this year's upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa, attitudes towards migrants have remained stable throughout Europe and North America - including in Britain. The sharp increase in unemployment since 2008, when the survey was launched, has not affected views on whether immigrants take jobs from British workers.

Also surprising is the level of sympathy shown towards migrants fleeing poverty. Over half of the British public said they would admit them to the country, a similar proportion to their French and German counterparts. Higher numbers supported those forced to leave their countries because of armed conflict and natural disaster. Even when faced with something tangible - the Arab Spring - 40% of people supported opening the British labour market to residents of newly democratic states in North Africa and the Middle East.

British attitudes also appear less stark on the subject of integration. The children of immigrants are viewed more positively than in France and Germany. Muslim immigrants in the UK are not seen in a more negative light than immigrants generally, in contrast to Spain and Germany. This may reflect in part the lived experiences of those who live in diverse areas of Britain, where immigration is often viewed as a problem nationally rather than locally.

So while it's imperative that we consider why the British public are so worried about immigration, responses to their concerns should focus on workable solutions. Winning public confidence in the migration system will require more than reducing the head count at our borders.