‘You feel alienated in your own backyard’
Today's concern about immigration seems to be less a story about them, than a story about us.
The immigration issue seems to strike a popular chord like no other today. A recent YouGov poll found that two thirds of voters think that there are too many migrants coming into the UK, and three quarters think that migrants are putting strain on public services. Three quarters believe that the prime minister has lost control over immigration and is lying about it (1).
This isn’t just a matter of raw numbers. Britain isn’t straining at the seams; though it is a small island, there is room for plenty more. And it is likely that immigrants put more into institutions such as the National Health Service (NHS), as doctors, nurses and cleaners, than they take out of them. So why has this become such a focus for public concern?
‘Immigration is the number one issue’, says Will, a 29-year-old barrister’s clerk in London, the city where many immigrants settle. ‘It’s out of control, putting pressure on all parts of life.’ A market trader in her 50s agrees: ‘We all think it’s a massive problem. They have let too many people in – there just isn’t enough space.’ Immigrants are seen as putting public institutions under pressure. ‘The NHS is under strain, communities are under strain’, says a human resources manager in his mid-50s. ‘Immigrants settle in indigenous communities and don’t speak the language.’
Behind this is a sense of disenfranchisement, an idea that other people are taking advantage. ‘People that come here have got to offer something’, says Mario, a 46-year-old jeweller. ‘Some are just taking the piss, coming here for a meal ticket, a free ride.’ Another man argued that Britain was seen as an ‘easy touch’. Many said that they had paid into the NHS, but that it didn’t seem to belong to them any more. ‘We’ve lived here all our lives, and paid taxes, but now there are just too many people and the NHS can’t cope’, said one woman.
There is an idea that British people are being passed over by politicians, who are too busy defending other people’s interests. ‘What about our old age pensions?’, asks one woman in her 50s. ‘Immigrants are put up in houses and hotels. What about our old people, who have paid into this country for their whole life?’ A man in his late twenties agrees: ‘people who come into this country get money given to them hand over fist. Those who pay taxes are easy targets – if you pay your road tax you get caught by speed cameras, but if you don’t then you get away with it.’
This doesn’t seem to be about racism. It’s not really about defending the interests and identity of white British communities against black, Asian or Jewish foreigners. A survey released in December 2004 found an increase in concern about immigrants since 1995, but no increase in racial prejudice (2). A survey carried out for the think-tank Migrationwatch UK found that while 75 per cent were concerned about immigrants, over 50 per cent said that they were happy to live in a multicultural society.
It is the unknown quantity of immigrants that causes most unease. The concern is that you don’t know who they are and can’t get a handle on them, rather than that they are from a specific ethnic group. In tabloid exposés, asylum seekers are generally shown with their faces blurred out, or covered with handkerchiefs.
Immigrants are seen as shifty strangers, with unknown aims and agendas. ‘We’re letting people into this country, and we don’t know who they are’, says 22-year-old Alex. ‘They haven’t had their health checked, or their papers checked.’ A woman in her 50s says that ‘we don’t know who’s here; it’s out of control. We need to keep a check on it’. Even a 42-year-old Lebanese immigrant worries that ‘we are not safe. Terrorists can live here, and get money from welfare, and nobody knows’.
As prime minister Tony Blair admitted in The Times, politicians have been hearing these kinds of comments from their focus groups (3) – and both the government’s and the Tories’ recent plans are pointed attempts to reassure. While the public worries about the unknown quantity to immigrants, Blair proposes fingerprinting and health checks on entry, and only taking immigrants from specified groups. You know what you’re getting, is the message, and you know that nobody is taking advantage. Meanwhile, Michael Howard proposes an upper limit on immigration, offering a fixed quantity of immigrants, year on year.
But it is questionable how much mileage politicians can make out of the immigration issue. The political elite is viewed with suspicion, and seen as incapable of taking control. ‘I think that Blair knows how bad it is, but he’s not letting on’, said one woman. Many commented that politicians ‘have lost control’. Few were impressed with the government’s plans to tighten borders and keep a closer check on immigrants. ‘Too little too late’, said one man; ‘It’s all talk’, said another.
Some said that they would support fringe parties, such as the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and Robert Kilroy-Silk’s Veritas, or even the British National Party (BNP). But many people were just fatalistic, believing that there was nothing that could be done.
The immigration debate is less a story about them, than a story about us. It seems that people’s sense of alienation from public life – from their neighbours, from public institutions, from government – is being projected on to the immigrant incomer.
We’ve seen the erosion of many of the social bonds that bound us together, and to public institutions. ‘People feel alienated in their own backyard’, says one 31-year-old marketing manager. When we feel that we are strangers to one other, perhaps we pin these worries on to the unknown figure of the immigrant. When we don’t feel much connection to government, or ownership of public institutions, we imagine that this is because they are serving the interests of others. The sense of not having much stake in Britain is projected on to those who come to Britain from elsewhere.
In the run-up to the general election, it is worth digging up the roots of the immigration debate. Rather than project problems on to immigrants, it would be better to discuss them squarely in their own terms, on home turf.
(1) Quoted in Daily Mail, 7 February 2005
(2) Opposition to immigrants hardens under Blair, 7 December 2004
(3) The Times (London), 7 February 2005
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