It’s time to change the debate on migration
Immigration is one of the topics that dominated the 2015 General Election. When the first edition of Why immigration is good for all of us was released last year, the myths around this subject were entrenched in public consciousness. Over a year later we have seen the horrifying effects of this: nearly four million people turned out to vote for anti-immigration party UKIP while the Government has looked the other way as desperate asylum seekers and migrants have been killed trying to make it to Europe.
The one-sided migration ‘debate’ is characterised by myths and stereotypes. It has proved extremely damaging – and at times fatal – to migrants’ and asylum seekers’ lives. The updated release of this pamphlet - Changing the debate on migration - supported by Migrants Rights Network provides some important facts which are sorely needed in this increasingly anti-immigration climate.
The refugee crisis that has escalated in Europe due to conflict across the Middle East and North Africa has further shown the human consequences of Britain’s xenophobic rhetoric. The Conservative Government met little opposition when it chose to withdraw support for Mare Nostrum, the search and rescue opposition for people drowning in the Mediterranean. Thousands of desperate people are living in a camp in Calais; Britain’s response was to ‘strengthen borders’. While the swell of public opinion has recently forced the Government’s hand in committing to take more refugees, they have consistently refused to take part in a fair asylum system. In the first three months of this year they rejected 64% of asylum cases – even though the UK gets a relatively small number of asylum applications.
Meanwhile, the reality for far too many of the people from abroad who make it into Britain’s rigorous immigration system is one of destitution and discrimination. Countless asylum seekers and refugees are held in detention centres and face abuse of a physical and psychological nature. State support for asylum seekers has been cut; projections suggest they will receive around 50% less than British benefit claimants. While asylum seekers, who could face persecution at home, are forcibly removed from the country in the dead of night.
We have reached this point because of a weakness on the Left. A significant number of politicians who claim to be pro-immigration accept immigration myths in some form or another. For instance, many ignore the benefits of multi-language society and adamantly proclaim that immigrants must learn English, despite the fact that only a tiny number can’t and that the Coalition government cut funding for English classes in 2011. This buys into the idea that ‘they’ are different from ‘us’ and that ‘they’ cause British society’s problems.
The absent response to the misleading, often hysterical, coverage of migration has exacerbated prejudice and strengthened the toxic anti-‘foreigner’ feeling in this country. Far too many perpetuate the myth that people from abroad move to Britain to claim from the system. The reality is only 1% of migrants claim benefits, in comparison to 4% of the British population. Most immigrants are in work and they are key to running public services, like the NHS.
Yet politicians still routinely use the word ‘immigrant’ as if it were a dirty word. It has become so powerful in its negativity that they go so far as to interchange two very different terms: ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘migrant’. The former are forced to leave their country of origin due to persecution, the latter make the choice to leave. Purposefully confusing these two terms minimises the human suffering that exists just beyond this country’s borders and sends a message to the public that all people from abroad are out for what they can get. And so, unless they have wealth to buy them privilege, British immigrants and asylum seekers have become less than human.
Sadly, some believe that while all of this may be true, the electorate won’t listen to the truth about migration. But public opinion is not rigid and social change is not achieved by simply pandering to opinion polls. On immigration we must challenge, confront and transform misconceptions, to prove that people from abroad – whether they are classified as immigrants, asylum seekers or refugees – have not caused low wages or this country’s housing crisis. Wealthy landlords, voracious employers and a deregulated market have laid the ground for inequality to breed. In fact, migrants and asylum seekers share common ground with Britons who bore the brunt of the economic crisis: both are exploited and used as scapegoats for this country’s problems. But mistruths about immigration shroud this potential base for solidarity.
That is why the facts in this pamphlet are so important. We must use them to inject rationality and humanity into the migration ‘debate’. It is only with such facts that we can create a rival narrative, in which we remind the public that immigrants and asylum seekers are human beings too.