British Prime Minister David Cameron today announced that the UK will "resettle up to 20,000 Syrian refugees" in the next five years. He makes clear that this is a direct response to widespread public expressions of support for refugees, including a sudden shift in the sympathies of media coverage, and statements from key institutional figures such as the Archbishop of Canterbury. It has been widely noted that the government position seems to be a U-turn from less than a week earlier, when it was reported that the Prime Minister insisted that the UK should "not take any further refugees from the war-torn Middle East".
But how much of a shift has been made in government policy - and how much is this about managing public opinion rather than radical changes in approaches to immigration and asylum? Research I have been working on with colleagues has demonstrated that for at least a decade, UK immigration policy has been guided by perceived public opinion, rather than economic, social, legal or ethical arguments. It's just that until recently - this week - the perception of UK public opinion on immigration has been that it is simple - that people think there is too much immigration and it needs tougher controls.
However, both quantitative and qualitative research suggests that opinion has always been more mixed on this. Most people's views on immigration cannot be summed up by a simple 'Yes' or 'No' answer to the question 'Are there too many immigrants in Britain?'. People have long held more nuanced views - or more confused, depending on your perspective. Who is meant by 'immigrant'? Does a view on 'immigrants' in general apply to people one knows personally? What about different opinions on people from different parts of the world, who have come for different reasons, who have been in the UK for shorter or longer periods of time? Many people asked in a survey if there are too many immigrants in Britain have more to say on the subject than that they 'agree' or not.
The political and media debate this week has been taken by surprise by measures of public opinion other than polls - activism big and small, signing of petitions, demonstrations, pledges of physical and financial support, offers of shelter in people's own homes. What the Prime Minister's statement to the House of Commons demonstrates though - beyond a commendable shift to become at least somewhat more humanitarian - is an attempt to close down the debate. Politicians and the media quickly narrowed their discussion to Syrian refugees. While a large proportion of people seeking refuge in Europe at the moment are fleeing Syria, they are joined by people from many other countries suffering civil war and human rights abuses - such as Afghanistan, Eritrea and Sudan. Are we to suppose that the public support does not include them too?
Image of a boat that has "turned turtle" = upside down. Author: US Navy. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Turned_turtled_boat.jpg
We hear a lot from politicians about how Britain should emulate Australia's immigration policy. This is usually taken to refer to their points system for highly skilled migrants (which the UK has had since 2008). However, a direct comparison can also be made to what the Prime Minister is proposing. Australia is one of the countries taking the most refugees through the UN resettlement programme. But this is coupled with their campaign to 'Turn Back the Boats': a military operation dragging boats of desperate people back into the ocean, contravening international law. It also involves deporting people attempting to seek refuge in Australia to extra-territorial detention centres on Nauru, where the Australian government have been accused by the UN of torture. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott headed off public concern about drowned bodies washing up in Australia by his combination of Turn Back The Boats and an argument that people seeking refuge this way were 'queue-jumpers' who should wait in line in UN camps, resulting in an out-of-sight, out-of-mind solution where people are held indefinitely in horrific conditions. Sound familiar?
Anyone who knows about the chaos of circumstances that lead people to seek refuge will know that forming an orderly queue is not so straightforward. And if you want to know why people are desperate enough to take such dangerous journeys with their children, instead of following the 'proper channels', then you have not looked beyond the tragic image of Aylan Kurdi to find out how he came to be washed up on the beach. His family applied for asylum in Canada. They were turned down.
People in the UK and across the world were moved to action by the image of Aylan, and they have confounded political and media assumptions about limited views on immigration. The question now is, will people in Britain be pacified by the Prime Minister's promises? If so, the outcome of this moment could be the UK moving closer to the 'Australian immigration policy' which does nothing for the people who are already here, seeking our help.
This post first appeared on the Mapping Immigration Controversy website.