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Immigration: Are we Thinking of Different Things?

With a general election fast approaching, immigration is sure to remain high on the policy agenda. Pledges to ‘stop the boats’ and ‘secure our borders’ are sure to raise the eyebrows of voters, as the fiery debates regarding Rwanda and refugees have certainly raised the hackles of many across the House.

Yet misperceptions and miscommunications have led to ineffective democratic procedures, stifling the debate and preventing effective communication between politicians and the public. Moreover, it has illustrated evermore clearly the dangerous impact of language miscommunication and manipulation in the conversation between politicians and the public.

Support for Brexit and the emergence of Donald Trump are frequently attributed to growing grave concerns surrounding immigration levels. Yet, public perceptions regarding numbers of immigrants differ dramatically from the actual number of migrants that are coming to the UK. UK estimates for the number of immigrants tends to be almost twice as many as the actual figure, with most of the rest of the world holding similar misconceptions.  

Additionally, many who aim to reduce immigration levels are referring primarily to those seeking permanent migration. Yet despite this, the government has increasingly placed measures aiming to reduce the inflow of temporary migrants such as international students, despite few members of the British public cognitively including this demographic in their calculations when calling to ‘reduce immigration’. 

Therefore, the homogenisation of immigrants appears problematic in that it can lead to government policy which fails to effectively represent the demands of a population. Perceptions of immigration diverge greatly from those identified as immigrants by the Government and targeted by policy changes. Policies which target segments of the population who are not included in the minds of people when calling to ‘reduce immigration’ may further damage the UK economy, and strengthen false narratives and the democratic deficit. 

Misperceptions and miscommunications can thereby occur both ways in the discourse between voters and politicians. This was further illustrated in Cameron’s failure to challenge claims in 2016, during the buildup to the Brexit referendum, that it was cuts through the Austerity program, rather than increasing migration levels, that were responsible for the sharp reduction in social welfare and public services. Indeed, by implicitly accepting the economic case for cutting immigration, Cameron strengthened the meta-narrative of immigrants being responsible for a ‘declining Britain’, and thereby, allowed leave to argue that harsher immigration policies had tp be put forward in order to ‘regain control’ of the country. Tory promises to cut net migration by 300,000 similarly reflects the  claim that immigrants are responsible.

The narrative of immigrants being to blame for a ‘Broken Britain’ is proving stronger than ever in the upcoming general election. Reform UK’s flagship policies revolve around significantly reducing the number of immigrants coming into the country, and leaving the ECHR. They claim that this has been a key factor in undermining the public services within the country, with recent polls putting them ahead of the Conservative Party. Simultaneously, the Conservative party appears to have adopted this narrative, with former Home Secretary Suella Braverman referring to growing rates of immigration as an ‘invasion on our Southern Coast’, and blaming electoral woes on a failure to effectively crack down on immigration. Robert Jenrick criticised the Rwanda scheme and resigned as immigration minister saying the program ‘did not go far enough’, illustrating how widespread this meta-narrative has spread.   

Phrases such as ‘stop the boats’ or ‘stop the invasion’ are purposefully dehumanising, negating the humanity in the minds of those who hear and respond to such phrases. In this, it allows politicians to create or exacerbate ideas of a catastrophic ‘crisis’ and thereby exploit frequently vulnerable and marginalised groups for political capital whilst ignoring the factors which were far more fundamental in creating the crisis in public services in the UK, including austerity and financial crises.  

Yet despite growing immigration being frequently seen as detrimental to economic growth through placing stress on infrastructure such as housing and healthcare, immigrants actually played a vital role in repairing the financial damage caused by the financial crisis, with the NHS relying on immigrant doctors and nurses in order to sustain itself. Therefore, rather than economically ‘breaking’ Britain, immigration helped us when we were sick or needed particular skill sets. 

Between 2001 and 2011, immigrants contributed in net fiscal balance approximately £25 billion, despite the UK running an overall budget deficit, making a net contribution to the public finances of the UK, despite these contrasting assumptions made by the public when the topic of immigration is debated. Rather than being a drain, migrants broadly pay more into the economy than they take out and thereby are conducive to economic growth. Indeed, much animosity towards immigration may rather stem from a feeling of being ‘left behind’ with growing inequality and an absence of strong protection from market forces.    

As the general election fast approaches, misperceptions and miscommunications may continue to haemorrhage efforts to make effective policy, at a time when so many feel alienated and resentful towards mainstream politics and political parties. As it stands, unless these powerful misperceptions regarding immigration levels and effects are challenged, Britain feels doomed to repeat policy failures and will not tackle the real root of its most pressing problems and grievances.


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