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Both politicians and the public need to get real on immigration

Both politicians and the public need to get real on immigration

To mark Refugee Week, Paul Bickley reflects on the UK’s paradoxical perspectives on immigration 21/06/2024

It’s Refugee Week, in theory a week in which the “contributions, creativity and resilience” of refugees are celebrated. At least when it comes to the election campaign, that is not quite what is happening. It is, so the cliché goes, a ‘battleground’ issue. Tuesday saw 882 people arrive in the UK by crossing the Channel in small boats, the highest number this year. There was a brief flurry of claims and counter–claims between the political parties, with the Conservative Party hitting the issue particularly hard with attack ads on social media. 

Elections are the worst possible time to talk about asylum and immigration. The incentives are to oversimplify the issues and exaggerate the ability of governments to deliver what the public, on average, wants (lower immigration) without owning up to a series of difficult choices that need to be made in order to do so. 

Meanwhile, there is always someone prepared to sound tougher, without necessarily having the responsibility to deliver any kind of change. Populist actors fuel already low levels of trust in the system by telling groups of voters that their concerns are being ignored. The populist can present himself or herself as a brave truth–teller, in contrast to liberal elites, real or imagined, who are afraid or unwilling to acknowledge the problem or do anything about it, let alone say what they’re prepared to do about it. In one respect they are right. Few politicians are prepared to challenge the ‘crisis framing’ – the sense that there’s an urgent threat from immigration that must be met – either because they benefit directly from it, or because they fear the electoral consequences of contradicting voters’ perceptions.  

That’s politics, I guess. But this issue is stuck in a particular contradiction, a paradox even. On the one hand, it is one of the issues that gets the most attention – more than education, crime, social care, the environment, defence (the list goes on). On the other hand, the national conversation is particularly evasive, dishonest and open to false simplicities. 

Last week we published the latest briefing paper in our Religion Counts series. We’ve been analysing data from the British Election Study (BES). The BES is a ‘copper bottomed’, multi–wave survey of political attitudes in the UK. In that paper, we asked whether religious people think differently from the general population on key issues such as the economy/cost of living, the NHS, and immigration.  

Nationally, regardless of religious identity, we are particularly resistant to asylum seekers. On a scale of 0–10, where 0 means ‘many fewer’ and 10 means ‘many more’, the British public score 3.8. We are more hostile to asylum seekers than any other group of immigrants (i.e., students, people from within the EU, people from outside the EU, and family reunification). 

It’s tempting to moralise. Why do we reserve the greatest hostility for the most vulnerable? Shouldn’t we, as the New Testament puts it, welcome the stranger? Well, Christians who want to throw stones are doing so from a glass house. As a group, Christians want fewer asylum seekers than the national average, with those who identify as Anglican showing particular resistance. One caveat is that there is a significant difference between practising and non–practising attitudes. Among Roman Catholics and ‘Other’ Christians, non–practising adherents are more resistant to asylum seekers than the average, while practising adherents are more open. But even practising Anglicans are colder towards asylum seekers than the national average (though they are considerably warmer than their non–practising counterparts). 

There are two things I draw from this data.  

The first is that our national debate is strangely detached from the reality of migration in the UK. Let’s make no bones about it, migration levels are high – historically unprecedented, in fact. There has been around 3.7 million in net migration since 2013. However, what is driving these figures is not an ‘influx’ of refugees, but visas granted for work or study purposes. Last year, around 400,000 were granted in these two categories. These figures are multiple times higher than the number of people seeking refugee status in the UK. Yet the debate about immigration usually focuses on the policy around asylum seekers: their processing, integration, or repatriation. I suspect that in the minds of many ordinary voters, the two are indistinguishable. In their minds, less immigration means fewer asylum seekers.  

We know from wider polling that concerns about immigration aren’t driven by race or culture, but by resource pressures (welfare, services, housing) and, to a lesser extent, by security concerns (terrorism). But of course, if we ‘fixed’ the issue of small boats (there may be policies that could help mitigate the issue, but if we’re honest we will never ‘stop the small boats’) then resource pressures will remain. Why? Because of the economy, inflation, energy costs, high public debt, low productivity, an ageing population, and yes, a growing population – but then many immigrants come to the UK to help deliver the public services that those concerned about immigration want to protect. It has been widely reported, for instance, that nearly one in five healthcare workers in the UK is a foreign national. Complicated, isn’t it?  

Secondly, when it comes to political attitudes, and leaving denominations aside, there are at least two kinds of Christianity in Britain. On the one hand there is a large group (actually larger than its counterpart) for whom Christianity is about tradition, authority, culture and overlapping identities of nation and perhaps western–ness. There is a strong sense of ‘us’, but that ‘us’ is not really the church but the nation. On the other hand, there is a smaller group for whom Christianity leads to political values that are more universalist and based on a more cosmopolitan identity. The former are less likely to find themselves in church than the latter, and the latter are also more likely to be active in other ways – volunteering, campaigning.  

People in both groups will have the same religious label, but in reality it means something very different. It will be tempting for one group to catastrophise the other, and vice versa, but we should refrain from doing so. Rather, we should ask why people hold the views they do, and what goods they might be trying to preserve and advance, and thus model a better conversation than the one that takes place in election season. 

Outside the polarising politics of elections, we could probably find more common ground on these issues than we realise. That common ground won’t be found through soaring rhetoric or populist appeals, but through hard work and better systems – processes that produce good decisions quickly, an effective return system (forced returns are 2/3 lower than 10 years ago), and thus a reduction in the number of asylum seekers in expensive accommodation – whether hotels or notorious ‘solutions’ like the Bibby Stockholm.  

Speaking for myself, I didn’t really like what I saw in this data, but I think a better conversation and better results are possible.


 On Theos’ ‘Religion Counts’ series

This blog is part of a larger body of work including briefing papers and articles exploring the impact of religion on voting patterns in the UK.

The first briefing paper: Do the religious vote? which examines whether voters from different religions backgrounds are more or less likely to vote.

The second briefing paper: Who do the religious vote for? looks at data on party preference – which parties are people from various religious backgrounds likely to vote for?

The third briefing paper: Do the religious feel like they can make a differencewhich explores political efficacy, social trust, and political trust amongst religious participants.

The fourth briefing paper: Economic and Social Values which maps the economic and social attitudes of religious groups in Britain.  

The fifth briefing paper: What do the religious think about key election issues? which breaks down how religious people in Britain feel about the most important issues facing the UK.

Learn more about our Religion Counts work here.

Could you help uncover the impact faith can make in this election year by giving to our Religion Counts election appeal?  

Image by Metin Ozer on Unsplash

Paul Bickley

Paul Bickley

Paul is Head of Political Engagement at Theos. His background is in Parliament and public affairs, and he holds an MLitt from the University of St Andrews’ School of Divinity.

Watch, listen to or read more from Paul Bickley

Posted 21 June 2024

Immigration, Politics, Religion Counts


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