Politicians scared of toxic immigration debate


Houses of Parliament. Photo: Peter Richardson

Houses of Parliament. Photo: Peter Richardson

Political attitudes to immigration can be toxic. Cases like the Minister of State for Immigration going on national television to tell an Iraqi asylum seeker to leave the UK; the Home Office’s controversial ‘Go Home’ vans which spent a week parading the streets of London; gay and lesbian people told they had to “prove” their sexuality. Even as the number of visas issued went down by four percent this year, the rhetoric went up.

Tom Riordan, Leeds City Council’s chief executive, believes it’s hard for politicians to talk publicly about immigration because it’s such an inciting subject but politicians need to talk about refugees and asylum seekers because if people only hear misleading information that warps their views.

Perhaps challenging the narrative around the people behind the increasingly demonised terms of ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’ is the greatest contribution that people in the public eye can make.”

Everything from premiership footballers, to victims of trafficking, to overseas investors, to international students seems to provoke debates that are most often not actually about the issue you first started talking about.”

According to Riordan these stereotypes don’t take into account…

“the large numbers of doctors, nurses, technicians or specialists who were born overseas, and who are an integral part of making the NHS actually function”.

Immigration has brought many benefits to society, including workers on whom we rely and friends we have made, but we also need immigration control so we can strike a balance.”

Fabian Hamilton, the MP for Leeds North East, claims that politicians speak negatively about immigration because of their mistaken belief that tough rhetoric is what the public wants to hear. However, he believes this isn’t true in north east Leeds.

We have grown out of successive waves of immigration and that makes this corner of Leeds the wonderful place that it is. Leeds has become an exciting, diverse place to live because of its diversity.”

Hilary Benn, the MP for Leeds Central and shadow secretary of state for communities and local government, also thinks there is misinformation spread. When refugees came to Leeds from Kosovo, he said, the community welcomed them because they knew what they had gone through.

The perception of immigrants as stealing jobs, taking advantage of the NHS and generally bleeding the country dry is “a complete caricature of reality”.

University College London’s migration research unit recently revealed that migrants have contributed £25bn to public finances since 2000.  (The Fiscal Effects of Immigration to the UK: Christian Dustmann and Tommaso Frattini, Page 27)

When the Daily Mail accused Ed Miliband’s refugee father of not being British enough there was a backlash from the public. The perception of immigration is slowly changing, although David Blunkett’s claim that Roma communities may cause riots shows there is still a way to go.

Regardless of the colour of our skin, the clothes we wear, the language we speak, the faith we profess – or not – we are as human beings all the same inside.” Hilary Benn

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