Migration, Public opinion and politics: rhetoric or reality check?

Andrew Milner

Andrew Milner

It’s a common fault in conference or meeting sessions for presenters to go on too long and leave no time for questions from the floor (something which I’ve already had occasion to bemoan in this Foundation Week). It was refreshing therefore that, at the start of this session, moderator Sarah Llewelyn of the Barrow Cadbury Foundation, made clear that presenters would be limited to 15 minutes each, still more so when she requested panellists to heed the fact that not all of the audience was a specialist on the topic of migration and to keep jargon and acronyms to a minimum.

Jean Lambert, MEP from London, spoke first on the scepticism with which immigration was viewed and increasingly negative image migrants often had in most of Europe. She spoke of the need for clear political leadership on the question, on the need to hear more migrant voices in public debate and highlighted the lack of understanding of the causes of public hostility.

That there is a profound disparity between how immigrants are perceived on both sides of the Atlantic and the real state of affairs was highlighted by research presented by Zsolt Nyiri of the German Marshall Foundation. Attitudes generally worsened across most of Europe and North America between 2008 and 2009. A greater percentage of people in both regions saw immigration as a problem than had been the case in 2008. However, a powerful means of offsetting this negativc view was personal acquaintance with people born in another country. Only 27 per cent of people in the UK with friends from another country, for instance, saw immigration as a problem compared to 78 per cent of those with no friends from another country, while in the US, the relative proportions were 38 and 65 per cent. He also presented research specifically on the perceptions of Muslims by themselves and by the rest of the public – the contrast was, perhaps predictably, striking – 72 per cent of Muslims living in Berlin, for example, considered themselves ‘loyal’ to Germany, while only 35 per cent of the rest of the German public thought they were.

Nick Lowles, who had recently organised a – successful – Hope not Hate campaign against the UK’s far right British National Party in the recent UK local authority elections in a  London borough, reinforced Jean Lambert’s affirmation of the need for progressive policies and hence for decisive political leadership. Liz Hollett of the Transatlantic Council on Migration identified  a number of things that politicians could do to counter negative rhetoric on immigration: use straightforward language; acknowledge concerns, don’t sweep them under the carpet; appeal to people’s emotions, don’t just quote statistics at them; be proactive, rather than reactive; understand people’s ambivalence and address it, rather than brushing it aside. She also pointed out that if governments make false promises on immigration, even if this seems to pander to people’s antipathies, is not helpful to pro-immigration sentiment in the long run either, since it erodes trust.

Zsolt Nyiri had earlier isolated the importance of having friends among migrant communities and positive media framing and in regard to this last point, Karen Chouhan of Equanomics UK, from the floor, appealed for press and politicians to present in a positive light the effects of migrants on the economy and society of the host country. Far right parties, she urged, were adept in doing the reverse of this. Another participant also pointed out that the key messages were relatively obvious – who were the key audiences? The general answer seemed to be young people – they were more susceptible to change their views and they would suffer the effects of changing labour markets, something which the right often seized on, without foundation, to pillory immigrants.

Overall, the session was well run and informative. A token of this is that it was very popular (extra chairs had to brought in and people were standing against the back wall) and no one left, even though it slightly overran its scheduled time. It did begin to feel a little as if it was biased towards the experience of the UK. The case study, for want of a better term – the presentation of the Hope not Hate campaign – came from the UK and almost all the questioners were from the UK. Sarah Llewelyn became apologetic about the matter and began explicitly to solicit questions from people from other countries. A second thing is that it’s hard to discuss such questions in a purely rational spirit, especially when all the participants are very clearly in favour of open immigration policies. It’s clear, however, that the theme of migration is likely to be an important thread running through the Week, with a number of other meetings scheduled on this general area and an evident appetite among participants for discussing the matter.

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