When someone gets around to writing the history of the UK immigration debate, there is a good chance that they will come to see 2014 as the year when things began to turn around and, eventually, tack off in a progressive direction.
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Okay, against this sunny optimism are opinion polls which continue to show a large majority in favour of reducing migration levels. A major objection to receiving newcomers – that we are a small island with a finite amount of space – seems still to be firmly in place as a reason why so many people want to see less movement across borders.
But other anti-immigrant arguments have fallen by the wayside during the past year. Politicians who want to argue that immigration is responsible for the British unemployment levels have been set back by the fact that the total volume of people in work over the past year has increased whilst net inward migration here continued to be strongly positive.
Even the claim that high levels of migration create pressure on our public services has been eclipsed by the evidence that public spending cuts mandated by the austerity agenda have been the real culprit behind longer waiting times and more restricted resources. If migration shows up in any way in the news stories of struggling A&E departments and hard-pressed social care it is more likely to be through the image of migrant doctors, nurses, care workers and ancillary staff battling to keep things going, in defiance of inadequate budgets to do the job.
Also on the positive side is the evidence of a sector of public opinion which seems utterly resistant to the idea that migrants are to blame for the difficulties of recent years. Across the country the figure is around 20 – 25% of the public, but its real significance lies in the groups of people where these views are concentrated. Young people who have grown up in families and communities with histories of migration are rejecting the idea that migrants are to blame and are most likely to see their presence in the neighbourhoods and towns where they live as evidence of dynamism and opportunity.
We should also be encouraged by the support for this viewpoint among forward-thinking elements in all the main political parties. Groups of Conservatives as much as Labourites and Lib Dems have conceded this point and are increasingly visible in policy dialogues as they try to work out ways to reconcile the new reality of migration with their wider philosophical commitments.
This is a good place to be as we think about what groups working to support migrants might do as the challenge of a general election looms in May. The ‘migrants contribute’ message is one that needs to be taken up and reinforced in towns and regions across the country. Better still, we should be looking to build local platforms which can marshal the basic facts and data on the ways migrants are contributing to local communities, and work out how to get these out through regional media.
But we should also look for the chance to raise the ante in the public conversation by making the case that so much more could be achieved if newcomers were accepted as active partners in tackling fundamental problems, like housing, quality jobs, health services, education, inequality and the negativity of racism and xenophobia where it exists.
This means that as well as proclaiming “Hell Yeah, Migrants Contribute!” during the coming months, we should also say “And it’s high time they got a Fairer Deal out of immigration policy!”
MRN has offered up its ideas on how this can be done in the ‘Migrants Manifesto’ which has been endorsed by 120 organisations across the country. We are planning for intensive activity across the coming weeks to get these ideas out as widely as possible and engage with people as they work out the messages that are coming across during the course of the election campaign.
We are keen to hear from all people who are interested in joining in this effort to get across positive messages about migration. Drop us a line at email@example.com if you would like to get involved!
So, from all of us at MRN, here’s wishing you a Happy New Year and the very best for all your hopes that 2015 will be a year in which things truly turn around!
The “Hell Yeah – Migrants Contribute!” t-shirt in the picture has been produced by the #MigrantsContribute! coalition of campaigning groups. Check them out at http://www.migrants-contribute.org.uk. You can get your t-shirt from MRN priced at £12 + £1 post and packing (total £13). Please indicate your preferred size, L, M or S.
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This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.
* Don Flynn, the MRN director, leads the ogranization’s strategic development and coordinates MRN’s policy and project work. He is a regular and sought-after speaker at conferences, seminars and lectures on behalf of MRN.