Concerns about immigration are regularly at the top of the British political agenda. Unlike many commentators and politicians in the media, I certainly don't see the subject as taboo or that any attempt is being made to prevent us from talking about it, in fact the opposite appears to be true.
My problem however is this: much of the debate is founded on newspaper diatribes and flawed statistics with quite a large helping of xenophobia thrown in for good measure. This damages our ability to make up our own minds on immigration as evidenced by the results of the 2011 Transatlantic Trends survey.
According to the research commissioned by US and European think-tanks, people in the UK are much more likely to say there are "too many" immigrants than comparable nations. In Britain the figure is 59% compared to 27% in Germany and the Netherlands - both countries with a higher level of foreign-born residents. - BBC
The cloud of confusion
Across the UK, mass media has evolved to be instrumental in influencing the news agenda and in shaping opinions on almost all major societal and political issues. Yet, even when a story chooses to focus on facts rather than rhetoric and sensationalism, these articles are frequently misleading or riddled with inaccuracies.
Statistical errors are rife, particularly in front-page headlines. Last month several newspapers reported that immigration to the UK had risen by 20% over the previous 12 months. A quick look at the ONS report however shows that it is net migration, the difference between immigration and emigration, which had risen by 20%, not immigration itself. Immigration had actually risen by just 1.4% during the previous year.
On this occasion the real news story should have been that emigration from the UK had fallen dramatically due to the financial crisis and other economic factors, yet most newspapers completely ignored this, preferring instead to frame their story as the continuation of an immigration crisis.
Is Britain full?
It is frequently said that Britain is unique in attracting such an unusually high level of immigration through its borders due to various societal and economic factors which supposedly single the UK out as a desirable destination. But is this actually correct? The BBC's Paul Kenyon wrote of those migrants he spoke with who were emigrating from their home countries:
Most just wanted "Europe". They didn't care where they ended up. France and Italy receive more asylum applications per head than the UK. In fact Britain ranks 13th in the EU.
Many have suggested that the population of Britain will reach 70 million by 2029 with two-thirds of the increase coming from new immigrants, but as Philippe Legrain writes in the New Statesman:
Previous projections have proved wildly wrong. In 1965, official statisticians reckoned Britain's population would reach 75 million by 2000. It turned out 16 million lower. And while short-term projections based on births and deaths may be reasonably accurate, longer-term estimates of future migration should be taken with a fistful of salt.
Likewise, Legrain comments on the popular assertions in the media and elsewhere that the immigrants supposedly filling up Britain contribute little to the economy:
Each of us contributes to society in all sorts of ways -- and immigrants are no exception. On the contrary, newcomers tend to chip in more than most. Research by Christian Dustmann and his team at University College London shows that newcomers from eastern Europe paid 37 per cent more in taxes than they received in benefits and from public services in 2008-09, while people born in Britain paid in 20 per cent less than they received. In other words, recent migrants are not a drain on the welfare state, they are helping to pay for it -- while many more migrants help to provide public services, as doctors, nurses or cleaners in the NHS, for instance.
The (imagined) persecution of British people
It has become increasingly popular for stories to emerge whereby British people are portrayed as being persecuted for expressing their patriotism or for asserting their cultural dominance. Last year the Sun printed a story which suggested that police were attempting to ban fans from wearing England football shirts in pubs during the World Cup. The Metropolitan Police issued a statement saying that there was no policy to stop the wearing of England shirts and an inspector from West Midlands Police called it nonsense, yet this did not prevent the story spreading like wildfire, such is the magnetic press attraction to tales such as these.
Other stories discuss how British people are disadvantaged by immigrant families somehow jumping to the front of social housing waiting lists, with little more than anecdotal evidence to back up the claims. Last September, Richard Littlejohn claimed in the Daily Mail that: any Afghan climbing off the back of a lorry in Dover goes automatically to the top of the housing list, ahead of British soldiers returning from Afghanistan. Yet again, there is little truth to these assertions:
When our hypothetical Afghan jumps off the back of a lorry in Dover, he's not allowed to go on the council housing list. That's because in 2001 responsibility for housing asylum seekers was taken away from councils and handed to the UK Border Agency. UKBA "has a contract with housing providers rather than tenancy agreements with asylum seekers, who are excluded from social housing lists".
In other words, the Afghan arriving in Dover will not even be on the same list as Lance Corporal Baker, let alone able to automatically go to the top of it.
Fuelling an anti-immigration agenda
Along with mainstream media columnists, less sophisticated attacks such as the one reproduced below are regularly passed around via email and social networking, designed solely to provoke anger within British society against those entering the country and to mock the UK's supposedly lax border controls:
This is interesting!
Let me see if I understand all this .........
IF YOU CROSS THE NORTH KOREAN BORDER ILLEGALLY YOU GET 12 YEARS HARD LABOR.
IF YOU CROSS THE IRANIAN BORDER ILLEGALLY YOU ARE DETAINED INDEFINITELY.
IF YOU CROSS THE SAUDI ARABIAN BORDER ILLEGALLY YOU WILL BE JAILED.
IF YOU CROSS THE CHINESE BORDER ILLEGALLY YOU MAY NEVER BE HEARD FROM AGAIN.
IF YOU CROSS THE VENEZUELAN BORDER ILLEGALLY YOU WILL BE BRANDED A SPY AND YOUR FATE WILL BE SEALED.
IF YOU CROSS THE BRITISH BOARDER ILLEGALLY YOU GET A JOB, A DRIVERS LICENSE, PENSION CARD, WELFARE, CREDIT CARDS, SUBSIDISED RENT OR A LOAN TO BUY A HOUSE, FREE EDUCATION AND FREE HEALTH CARE.
Helpfully, this letter has been quite effectively debunked by our own Parliament. The full briefing is well worth reading, but here are some relevant extracts:
The email contains text from a protest email which has been circulating in Australia for some time now, but which may have originated in Canada. Versions also circulate in the United States, and elements even appear in protest emails as far afield as India. The UK version has been adapted, somewhat crudely, for a domestic audience by someone or some organisation unknown. [The email] bears no relation whatsoever to the situation in the United Kingdom.
"Illegal immigrants" are people who have entered the UK unlawfully, or who have stayed here for longer than they were allowed without making another application. They do not have the right to work. Since they are in the UK without legal status, they are liable to be removed if they come to the attention of immigration authorities.
People who require leave to enter or remain in the UK, but who do not have it, are 'persons subject to immigration control' within the meaning of section 115 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 and as such are not eligible for social security benefits, except those which depend on National Insurance contributions, such as contribution-based JSA. However, it is highly unlikely that a person in the UK without legal status will have a sufficient NI contribution record to gain entitlement to contributory benefits.
Amusingly, other versions of this letter entirely contradict our own, in this case the version passed around Asia which, in order to provoke an anti-immigrant sentiment against those entering India, warns that:
If you cross the "British" border illegally, you get.....arrested, prosecuted, sent to prison and be deported after serving your sentence.
Which - ironically - is a closer representation of reality in the UK.
Returning to the more mainstream media, stories are frequently constructed concerning illegal immigrants who were permitted to the stay in the country for increasingly spurious reasons, such as this deeply inaccurate story which suggested that an immigrant avoided deportation due to his possession of a pet cat. In another Daily Mail story last year, Littlejohn accused Eastern-European immigrants of trapping and eating swans from local rivers, prompting the RSPCA to issue a statement denying the claims.
Some, such as Tom Whitehead in the Telegraph, have suggested that human rights are somehow to blame for Britain being soft on immigration and deportation. This accusation bears a semblance of truth, but does not provide the entire story. For a criminal to be deported under EU law, they must have been sentenced to at least two years in prison. As Matt Cavanagh suggests, this sentence length may arguably be too short, however: as the arrangement is reciprocal between EU nations, lowering this limit would then require the UK to accept back more of our own citizens who have committed crimes elsewhere.
Blaming the immigrants
Cast your minds back (a long way, admittedly) to a time when The Simpsons still represented a hilarious and satirical take on American culture. In a particularly prescient episode, Mayor Quimby stirs up a campaign of hatred against illegal immigrants in an attempt to deflect public anger about his latest tax increase. Whilst we rightly laugh at Quimby's political incompetence, something similar has been occurring in British society for decades.
Immigrants are blamed for a multitude of sins, many in politics and the press see them as an easy target and few - if any - of them do their research or check their facts before going to press.
As I have already suggested, a significant proportion of the general public believes that the welfare state in the UK represents a unique attraction for those seeking asylum, resulting in a huge drain on our economy. As part of this, various stories emerge of obscenely large benefit claims and health tourism in British hospitals, many of which turn out to be inaccurate. Again, the BBC's Paul Kenyon had this to say of the migrants he had interviewed:
UK benefits are not what inspired the migrants I encountered. Although some were fleeing persecution, the vast majority were indeed economic migrants, but had no idea there was a state benefit system in the UK.
Somewhat paradoxically alongside the accusations of fecklessness and idleness, immigrants are simultaneously blamed for 'stealing our jobs'. Last year various tabloid newspapers claimed that 98% of British jobs created since 1997 had gone to immigrants. Yet as the TUC explained, these figures overlooked several important points. The article ignored the public sector entirely, excluded those over the age of retirement and classed those who were foreign-born (who may in fact be British nationals with a British passport) as foreigners. The true figure is therefore estimated by the TUC to be around 50%.
Crime is another key area where misconceptions run rife. Several weeks ago, a Daily Express story reported on the staggering increase in crimes committed by EU nationals. In reality however, immigrants actually commit less crime per-head than those born in the UK.
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), there were 2.1 million EU migrants (by birth) resident in England and Wales in 2010. Using Raab's figure of 27,000 convictions, that equates to one conviction per 78 EU migrants.
By comparison, the number of notifiable convictions for England and Wales as a whole - 750,000 for a total population of 54.5 million - equates to one conviction per 73 people. In other words, the rate of crime committed by EU migrants (as measured by these figures) is lower than in the population as a whole.
Once again, the tabloid press is never one to let facts get in the way of a good story.
It shouldn't come as a great shock to anyone that politicians are likely to bend the truth somewhat in their party manifestos and that promises made during an election campaign do not always materialise. Prime Minister David Cameron now faces a difficult dilemma following his gung-ho pledge to bring non-EU immigration down to the tens of thousands from its current level.
The reality of Cameron's much-lauded immigration cap has proved to be somewhat different.
Cameron, being no fool, is aware of Britain's dependency on immigration, and of his inability to do much about it. His attempt to wax "tough" on immigration also poses a difficulty for the coalition he leads.
Partly, he is torn between his business allies, who favour a relaxed approach to immigration, and the lower-middle-class Tory bedrock, who would ideally like to inhabit the sort of all-white chronotope of modern Britain purveyed by Midsomer Murders. Cameron has attempted to manage this by triangulating. Thus, his cap on non-EU migration partially made up for his reneging on the "cast iron" guarantee to hold a referendum on the EU treaty. Similarly, he has made concessions to alarmism about immigration threatening "our way of life". Yet, under pressure from big business, he has relented, even promising last year to relax the cap on non-EU migration.
Throughout the immigration debate, no one seems truly willing to question the conditions which have led to the UK's dependence on migrant labour. In his sharp critique of New Labour - along with the updated centrist Blue Labour policies - musician and activist Billy Bragg is absolutely correct that a combination of globalisation and neoliberal economic policy (supported by both main parties) has to shoulder some of the blame:
Capitalism's most recent leap forward, globalisation, has once again left us at the mercy of the markets. The power of the nation state to govern its own economic affairs has been put into question by multinational conglomerates with no loyalty to any country or continent. Successive governments, deregulating the labour market in the hope of attracting investment, have created an atmosphere of insecurity among a native workforce that has seen their jobs disappear overseas to as employers seek ever-higher profit margins with no regard to the social consequences.
The past two decades have also witnessed greater numbers of immigrants coming to Britain in search of work and better living conditions for their families. Those who oppose immigration complain that nobody voted for a huge influx of foreigners without recognising that the mass movement of cheap labour is a key aspect of globalisation.
Of course, the very notion that the policies of successive free-market Labour and Conservative governments may in fact be largely to blame for much of the current reliance on migrant labour isn't something which politicians and the media will readily discuss.
If a problem does indeed exist with levels of migration into the UK - which is still very much up for debate - then surely we should be scrutinising current and historical government policies on education, housing and employment rather than unthinkingly placing the blame at the feet of our immigrant population.
A national obsession
There appears to be a strange uniqueness in British attitudes towards immigration, accompanied by a sometimes sickening level of hostility and outright disdain. The truth is, we reside in a society where we are immersed in hatred and political distortion on the issue of immigration, which has gradually infected our collective subconsciousness.
Present media coverage is incredibly dangerous for social cohesion and as history has continually proved, hatred breeds in a culture of propaganda and fear of the unknown. The debate on immigration should continue but it must be based on facts and evidence rather than ignorance and prejudice.