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Public sympathy polls on Channel migrants tell us little and don’t help anyone

Public sympathy polls on Channel migrants tell us little and don’t help anyone

Former Head of Research Ben Ryan considers Yougov’s recent polling on sympathy for migrants. 18/08/2020

“Almost half of Britons (49%) say they have little (22%) to no sympathy (27%) for the migrants who have been crossing the channel from France to England” according to YouGov. Only 19% have a great deal of sympathy, despite the fact that we are talking about people who in many cases have fled warzones, sectarian violence and extreme poverty and are risking their lives to make the crossing to the UK in small boats.

This is exactly the sort of statistic that leads to bad policy making. It suggests that the UK public are opposed to (or at least don’t care one way or the other about) asylum seekers and so, it follows, favour ever more harsh models of migration enforcement. The political logic seems unassailable; the way to win elections is to be tough on immigration, tough on migrants and toughest of all on “illegal migrants” who have “jumped the queue”. Governments leap on polls like this and up the ante on securitization, making life unbearable for migrants as a matter of policy.

Lest this be taken as a dig at the current government, let’s be clear that even as Labour talked the language of multiculturalism it was Tony Blair’s government that, in response to moral panic over asylum seekers, passed a string of parliamentary bills, removed and restricted benefits, dispersed refugees around the county, and increased deportations to countries that were deemed safe, despite being anything but. The subsequent Conservative governments have taken the logic further, with the hostile environment being the ultimate logical conclusion of a very long trend.

In fact, it has never been quite so clear that the UK public really approve of such draconian measures. Sympathy trends are always open to disruption. At the moment, we are in a global pandemic and deep economic recession, with unemployment increasing sharply. It’s not a good time to be asking for empathy for outsiders when people are terrified about their own futures. Yet things can shift suddenly. Opinion across the EU on refugees was not favourable in 2015. It took the viral photographs of the body of poor Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean, to prompt a major response. More recently the Windrush scandal shocked the nation and led to the partial retirement of the terminology (though not the policies) of the “hostile environment”.

And yet it is quite clear that the biggest lesson of Windrush has not been learnt at all. Windrush was a double scandal. The first aspect was that the victims should not have been treated as illegal migrants and were perfectly entitled to be here. The second scandal is more overlooked. The victims were treated appallingly – banned from working, from receiving proper access to healthcare, from receiving the financial support necessary for anything beyond destitution, dehumanized, abused, treated like criminals, sent to detention centres and deported with barely any regard to what would happen to them when they arrived. But, crucially, this was not special treatment. This was (and remains) just the absolute standard practice for dealing with people whose asylum claim has been rejected, people whose visa has expired, and, far too often, victims of human trafficking and abuse; the full gamut of people without regularised migration status. The government seemed to conclude that the scandal here was only that it abused the wrong people, not that the treatment itself is fundamentally abusive, dehumanising and inhumane. There seemed to be genuine (albeit apparently short-lived) surprise that anyone should be angry about the hostile environment policy itself – after all, isn’t being tough on migration exactly what people voted for?

The British public are far more nuanced than government gives them credit for. Jill Rutter, a researcher on the British Futures project, notes that:

After the drowning of the toddler Alan Kurdi, a quarter of people took action to support refugees, for example donating money or signing petitions, while 30% said the UK should take no refugees at all. In between are the ‘balancers’. They include the 25% of people in the poll who have a fair amount of sympathy to migrants crossing the channel. This group will be sympathetic to the plight of refugees, but also want the UK and France to have an effective asylum system that combines control and fairness. The quarter who say that they have ‘not much sympathy’ can accept the principle of protecting refugees but would prioritise controls and want France to take firmer action.

Get beyond the headline figures and there is space for politicians to be a lot more nuanced in their approach to asylum seekers. Relatively few people see control of the borders and fairness of approach as requiring policies that are designed to strip out human dignity as a means of border control. Too often governments have looked at polls like this and taken the lesson that lack of sympathy equates to a need for extreme crackdowns. It is almost always a drastic over-reaction, as the shock over Windrush shows.

But before we conclude that the problem with polls like this is simply that it leads to lazy governments becoming ever harsher, I’d also like to suggest that some wider humility is needed. I see a lot of people commenting in a way that makes it clear that they feel virtuous in their sympathy compared to the heartless mob. Of course, I would prefer people to be sympathetic to not when it comes to vulnerable migrants, but frankly, I find it hard to care all that much. Sympathy is, to my mind, a pretty cheap emotion that is always somehow vaguely patronising, slightly voyeuristic (“look at those poor unfortunate people”) and rarely useful.

The Jesus of the gospels as I read them seems largely uninterested in sympathy. I see little evidence of Jesus encouraging us to feel sorry for people. The great commandment is not to sympathise with your neighbour but to love them. Love is active, a doing of something, that recognises the dignity of the other person. So if I had a plea, it would be that all of us, not only governments, need to stop caring about the evidence on public sympathy. It’s fickle, and ultimately a bit worthless. What matters is the doing and the relating, and churches and faith charities are doing a lot, but desperately need more support (financial and personal), particularly at the moment. In the final reckoning, the question Jesus tells us he will ask is what have we done for the least of his brothers and sisters. There’s no credit for feeling bad about their situation, and less still for how we felt about how others felt about them. Obsessing over it truly is a waste of time.

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Image: Naeblys/

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan is former Head of Research at Theos. He is the editor of Fortress Britain? Ethical Approaches to Immigration Policy for a Post–Brexit Britain (JKP 2018). He now works for
the Church of England.

Watch, listen to or read more from Ben Ryan

Posted 18 August 2020

Migration, Policy, Refugee Crisis


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