The Immigration Debate in the UK
UK Net Migration

Immigration is on course to becoming the most politicised issue of the upcoming general election in Britain. Beyond immigration’s ‘gains’ or ‘drains’, the human dimension is often forgotten.

UKIP have made it clear, they want no more than 30,000 immigrants a year to metaphorically gain entrance in Britain, through “the three escalators over the white cliffs of Dover ”.

Then came Labour and its red “immigration controls” mugs that risk serving a very hot cup of tea.

Then there is the Tories who had an objective but did not manage to achieve it – reduce net migration to the tens of thousands.

“However you put it, immigration is a big issue at the moment in the UK”, says Ivana Bartoletti, a migrant woman from Italy and political activist.

“But immigration is not an issue on the doorstep. It is a much bigger issue in places that are less diverse”.

Arguments in favor of immigration often highlight that immigration can bring significant financial benefits and it boosts the economy.

The UK's Office for Budget Responsibility has recently explained that an increase in net migration higher than predicted “to 298,000 in the past year” has been key to upgrading the forecast for growth of the British economy.  “Net migration will add 0.6% to the potential output of the British economy, far from being a burden on it, will increase net tax receipts”. 

A 2013 University College London study paints a similar picture. Migrants from eastern and central Europe arriving in the UK since 2000 have made a positive net fiscal contribution of £5bn. Migrants from the rest of the EU have contributed £15bn in that period.

The main reason migrants come to Britain is to work or study. With them migrants bring the skills needed to feed the wheels of the national economy, in areas where the country did not invest as much. For example in nursing, a shortage in the number of nurses on the British employment market is causing the NHS to have to fill the vacancies with workers from outside the country. 

“There is also an element of success, people want to come to Britain because it is a successful country”, says light-heartedly Ivana.

In contrast to the positive picture, the anti-immigration views and perceptions are the ones that mostly fuel the highly politicised immigration debate. 

Another recent research, by the British Election Study (BES)  has found an interesting correlation between people’s financial literacy and understanding of the labor market and their attitude to immigration.

“The more “financially literate” a person is, the more likely they are to hold positive views on immigration”.

This means that those that are less educated and have not got a very good understanding of the way modern economies work, are more likely to feel threatened and wrongly fuel the immigration debate. This also means that if factors such as education and understanding of the economy make a difference in the way immigrants are perceived, it becomes more of an issue to inform people and keep the debate away from misconceptions.

“Also, there is generally a misconception among the general public”, continues Ivana, “about migrants causing low wages. It is not migrants but employers who want to cut down costs as well as the lack of union, that cause the low wages”, she adds. 

Adding the human dimension to the debate, the fact that immigrants are human beings who take the risk, leave their comfort zones, in search for better opportunities, has the potential to change the narrative.

We live in a more fluid global economy, where qualifications and skills, resilience and willingness to work are key desirable characteristics for a more flexible and moving workforce. 

“Currently in the UK, we cannot say immigration is good or bad, immigration is a fact, it has always been. Diversity is good for communities and we need to make positive efforts from the state and communities to make it work”, continues Ivana.

“Women play a very important part in the acceptance of a positive representation of immigration. They create bonds between communities, at the school gates, in the local area”.

On the other hand negative ideology can cause harm to vulnerable migrant women who become afraid of coming forward and accessing services such as health or education.

Family members of migrant workers often have numerous barriers they have to overcome when they come in a new country.

“Often women’s confidence and self-esteem have been damaged and can be even more susceptible to negative images and commentary”, says Yuliana Topazli, a Russian entrepreneur and Director of My Outspace, an award winning business that provides family-friendly co-working space and business support to female entrepreneurs, in East Croydon, London.

“Often the women we work with, from low-income migrant families have great ideas, but lack the confidence to put them into action. That is what our center does, give them the confidence they need”. 

The immigration debate for the forthcoming general election in Britain has only begun.

“Immigration and the election debate, are a red herring to make people forget the real issues, such as education, the NHS, sexism, poverty”, says Muriel Demarcus, a French mum blogger who has also made Britain her home.