What’s missing in the public discussion on immigration?

Dr Filip Sosenko with his son Alfie.
Dr Filip Sosenko with his son Alfie.

Myths and misinformation in the media have fuelled  considerable public anxiety about immigration. Dr Filip Sosenko, himself a migrant from Poland,  identifies the critical issues that are being missed in the debate.

My colleague Kirsten Besemer recently wrote about public myths regarding child poverty. This triggered my thinking about public myths in my research area, immigration. Immigration has been all over the media in the past few years: Immigration cap good or bad? Migrants good for the economy or ‘welfare tourists’?  Migrants deserving or undeserving? Are they ‘scroungers’ taking scarce social housing or ‘victims’ of exploitative landlords in private rented housing? And so on. The public considers immigration to be the third most important issue in Britain today, after the economy and crime. This is a two way revolving relationship: the more the media run stories on immigrants, the more the public think it is an issue. And the more the public thinks it is an issue, the more likely the media are to run stories on immigrants.

Extensive media coverage – particularly on the part of the tabloid press – directly or indirectly fuels public anxiety, and hence the creation of myths. As a good example, in 2011 British respondents surveyed by GMF on average estimated a foreign-born population of 31.8 percent, while in fact only 11.3 percent of the population is foreign born. There is a ‘moral panic’ here as well: out of six Western societies surveyed, Britons were the most likely to say that immigration is more of a problem than an opportunity; most likely to say that there are ‘too many’ immigrants in the country; that immigrants take jobs from native workers; and that immigration has a negative effect on native culture.

Another myth is the one of EU migrants being a burden on the welfare state. This belief explains widespread public support for restricting migrants’ access to benefits. Fortunately some broadsheet commentators (no, not IDS or George Osborne) have the guts to point out that recent migrants put more into the public purse than they take from it.

Media coverage, especially by the tabloid press,  fuels the creation of myths

There remain two critical issues that barely reach the gaze of the media and the blogosphere and have a crucial bearing on the place of immigrants in British society today. Firstly, it has not yet been properly recognised that recent migration has profoundly changed the ‘ethnic minority’ scene in the UK. This scene used to be dominated by a few established, ‘visible’ ethnic groups originating from former British colonies; with the UK-born second and third generations being currently more numerous than the first. The policy approach to ethnic minorities has always been determined by the character of these groups, and their needs: the emphasis has been on anti-discrimination rights. This traditional approach, however, does not work for recent EU migrants; it does not meet their needs and priorities. Since most of them are not ‘visible’, racial prejudices are less of a bother for them; it is the relatively poor command of English combined with the lack of competence in British culture that poses the key challenge to their integration. The former point has finally been recognised by Labour – better late than never – but the latter has not attracted any serious thought, let alone idea of being acted upon, by policy-makers. As a migrant, I can say (with the benefit of hindsight) that it would have been very beneficial for my social integration in Britain if I had an opportunity to go through a ‘cultural induction’ programme. There seems to be no appetite among politicians at the moment to develop anything like this, but the idea is actually not at all bizarre: for example, American soldiers stationing in Britain during the 2nd World War were given a 15-page document largely devoted to describing ‘British customs and manners, do’s and don’ts’.

The second, related point that has not been much commented on so far is that policy-makers’ approaches to ‘migrant integration’ are not fit for purpose. They narrowly focus on successfully integrating recent arrivals into the state, its structures and institutions (housing, employment, education, health care etc.). However, it is not institutional integration but everyday street level integration between the newcomers and native people that matters to immigrants and their hosts: acquaintanceships, friendships, partnerships, good relations at work and with neighbours are of particular importance in making their lives work. It is the lack of this everyday integration that concerns the public, not the lack of structural integration.

Later this Spring a report is going to be published from our recent IHURER research for JRF on in-work poverty among minority ethnic individuals (led by Gina Netto), which has highlighted important differences between the situation of recent migrants and established ethnic minority communities. Keep f0llowing this blog for updates.