Ayesha Saran Talks Transaltantic Trends: Immigration

February 13th, 2012

Against the backdrop of the global economic crisis and the “Arab Spring,” the release of the 2011 Transatlantic Trends: Immigration survey analyses attitudes toward immigration remain stable in the United States and five European countries (France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK).

According to the December report, most respondents in Europe and the US see immigration as a problem yet remain optimistic about immigrant integration.

Cities of Migration talks to Ayesha Saran, Programme Manager, Migration and Europe, at the Barrow Cadbury Trust (UK), one of TTI’s project partners about this year’s findings.

In the latest Transatlantic Trends: Immigration survey, it was reported that most respondents, who may see immigration as a problem, “remain optimistic about immigrant integration.” What is the difference?

The survey found that public attitudes are more complex and nuanced than is often reported. Although it’s true that an overall majority considered immigration to be more of a problem than an opportunity, many recognized both its potential costs and benefits.

In most countries respondents considered that immigration positively rather than negatively affects their national culture and the majority of those surveyed in Europe and the US are not worried about legal migration. But there was more ambivalence about its impact on jobs. In the US and the UK in particular, concerns about labour market competition with immigrants were more strongly expressed than in other countries in Europe. Over half of British and US residents think that immigrants take jobs from native workers and lower the wages of citizens. On the other hand, the British are more likely than their European neighbours to say that immigrants help create jobs and set up new businesses.

On a more optimistic note, respondents were asked to consider how well migrants are fitting into society. In both Europe and the US the public tended to think that they are integrating well. They were even more positive about their children.

From a British perspective, Transatlantic Trends has consistently shown that as a nation we are more sceptical about immigration than North Americans and other Europeans and the most likely to rate it as the most important issue facing the country. It’s clear that these anxieties need to be addressed and some workable solutions proposed, particularly in cases where people perceive injustice.

However in the UK I think that the differences can partly be explained in terms of how we frame these two issues. Immigration is frequently discussed in relation to macro-level debates about how our labour market is structured and our immigration system works. Integration is less frequently mentioned in national debates. Beyond the headlines, at local level, my impression is that we manage pretty well, albeit in an understated and at times haphazard way. There are tensions but, ultimately, Britain’s sense of itself as a proudly diverse society has become firmly entrenched.

The survey also reports on public disapproval of government management of immigration. What does the survey indicate about this tension?

This survey can’t explain why people think that immigration is not being managed well. It also doesn’t tell us to what extent discontent with this area of public policy is related to the popularity of individual governments. What it does perhaps highlight is that we don’t know enough about whether public opinion on this subject is influenced more by perceptions than realities.

Transatlantic Trends detected widespread misperceptions about migrant numbers. In all countries, the public grossly overestimate the number of immigrants. On average the British estimated that immigrants constitute 31.8 per cent of the population, significantly higher than the official estimate of 11.3 per cent. A recent poll by British Future even found that four out of ten British people believe that more than ten per cent of the population are refugees.

This is important because Transatlantic Trends has found that knowledge affects perceptions. In 2010, the survey gave some respondents official estimates of the foreign-born population and others no information. In many cases this did make a difference. British respondents were significantly less likely to think there are too many immigrants when they were given the official figures.

Of course I’m not suggesting that, if given all the facts about immigration, government approval ratings would rise and public anxieties about immigration would dissipate overnight. However, in the UK case, it’s clear that some concerns are fuelled by a debate that is too often characterised by hyperbole and misperceptions.

Each country deals with immigration issues in a unique way. Yet, for a growing number of stakeholders “All immigration is local.”

I’m not sure I agree that ‘all immigration is local’ although it is clear that many countries face similar challenges and opportunities when it comes to maximising the benefits migration can bring. There is also a lot to be learnt from exploring why integration has been more successful in some local communities than in others.

To me what’s interesting is the disjuncture between local and national level debates and experiences. Crudely sketched, the British debate often places immigration in the context of the labour market or welfare provisions. Immigrants are frequently accused of taking jobs or benefits. Or both. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that concerns about immigration are a direct response to people’s lived experience.

In fact areas most affected by immigration are not necessarily those where it is viewed most negatively. Hopes and Fears, a poll by British Future, noted that 57 per cent of Londoners consider that immigration has been good for entrepreneurship and business start-ups, compared to 47 per cent across Britain. The Migration Observatory at Oxford University also found that Londoners who identify themselves as white and British were less likely to support reducing immigration than white British people living elsewhere in the country, even though nearly half of all migrants in the UK live in the capital.

So, from a British perspective, I’d welcome a greater emphasis on the local context and hope that this might lead to a more reasoned, less fraught national immigration debate, one which addresses frustration and concerns about local impacts while also recognising that the country has a positive story to tell about its migration history.

What has surprised you about this year’s results?

One surprise was that the Arab Spring, rising unemployment and polarised immigration debates in countries such as the US did not have a discernible impact upon how people view immigration.

The public response to the Arab Spring was also interesting. The survey found strong support for European Union burden sharing in response to migration caused by the turmoil in North Africa.

On labour migration, there was a strong preference for highly-educated migrants over those with lower levels of education. Unexpectedly, when questioned further on this subject, respondents in all countries would prefer to admit lower educated migrants with a job offer to highly-educated migrants without jobs.

This is the fourth Transatlantic Trends: Immigration survey. Why is it important to track public opinion on immigration?

One important reason is that a deeper understanding of how public opinion changes over time may help inform future policy-making and debates. The survey was started before the global financial crisis and has shown that attitudes to immigration have remained relatively stable for the last four years, thus challenging the widely held view that public opinion would inevitably scapegoat migrants in straitened times.

If you had a crystal ball, what trends do you see for immigrant integration issues in 2012? What will impact public opinion most?

I think this will very much depend upon the national context. In the UK, practitioners and experts are likely to focus on the impact of ongoing public sector cuts and whether they will affect integration. An issue that will generate public debate and perhaps a few headlines is marriage. Government plans to set a minimum income level for citizens wishing to marry their foreign partners will divide public opinion.

What’s the best thing immigration has done for London?

Immigration is such an integral part of the city’s identity, infrastructure and economy that it’s impossible to pinpoint one thing. For centuries, successive waves of migrants have cemented the capital’s position as a global, open city. More recently, London won the bid for the 2012 Olympics partly on the basis of its reputation as a diverse, global hub. Hosting the Olympic Games is likely to benefit not just Londoners but the country generally: a British Future poll revealed that sixty four per cent of people think that the Olympics will have a positive effect on the mood of the British public and will also favourably influence how Britain is viewed abroad.

What is your favourite city and why?

London, although I wish that I had a less predictable choice than my hometown. I’ve lived in various European cities and, in my experience, nothing beats what Samuel Johnson described as its “wonderful immensity.” It’s a fascinating blend of history and modernity.

I also have fond memories of living in Tirana. It’s a chaotic, vibrant and welcoming place. In many ways, it’s the opposite of London, as it is a new city and only became the capital of Albania in 1920. Even during my time there it grew and transformed at a dizzying pace.

Ayesha Saran is Migration and Europe Programme Manager at the Barrow Cadbury Trust, managing and actively contributing to the Trust’s research and policy work as well as its grant-making in the UK and internationally. Prior to joining the Trust, Ayesha worked for intergovernmental organisations for eight years, in both the UK and Albania. She also spent some time working as a freelance journalist in London.

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