The Guardian view on attitudes to immigration: focus on people, not numbers | Editorial

Politicians who thrive on fear want us to forget that immigration is a story of humanity and hope. That story must be retold

Given what is already known about the Home Office’s “hostile environment” policy, the discovery that hundreds of people, legally in the UK, were wrongly detained between 2010 and 2017 is not surprising. That makes it no less shocking.

Figures released to parliament’s home affairs select committee show that the government has paid tens of millions of pounds in compensation to victims of these egregious errors. But perhaps most illuminating is the revelation of staff bonuses for meeting “personal objectives” linked to enforced removals.

Confusion and obfuscation over deportation targets led ultimately to Amber Rudd’s resignation as home secretary. The use of financial incentives to meet targets adds another layer of perversion to a bureaucracy that plainly lost sight of the fact that it was dealing not with numbers but with human beings.

A lesson of the Windrush scandal is that public opinion towards real-life immigrants is more nuanced than public debate over the abstract thing called immigration. Harrowing individual stories elicited compassion and outrage. It was not a turning of the political tide, but it felt like a significant current.

Government policy is still skewed by the presumption that voters demand strict immigration regimes. That imperative is paramount in Theresa May’s conspicuously unsuccessful Brexit strategy. It comes as little consolation that the rest of the EU is struggling with the same issue. The difficulty in finding a common position on border control, and the potentially destabilising consequences of failing to do so, dominate the agenda at the European summit that began today.

There is no diplomatic bandwidth for discussing Brexit, and the UK is judged to have removed itself from any other top-table conversation among continental leaders. Yet even Brexit will not neutralise anti-immigration feeling in the UK, which pre-dates the leave campaign and was co-opted by it to foment hostility to the EU. Brexit was mis-sold as the antidote to deeper economic and cultural anxieties. Now it is a distraction from the task of addressing those concerns.

Liberal opinion has for years been divided on how to acknowledge concern about rapid demographic change without indulging prejudice. Not everyone who is worried about immigration is racist, but every racist resents immigration. Political rhetoric does not always permit nuanced distinction between the two positions. Trumpeting the economic benefits of immigration doesn’t persuade those who suspect such benefits are enjoyed by elites, elsewhere. But colluding in the narrative that immigration is a drain on prosperity does nothing to shift opinion towards greater tolerance.

There is no guaranteed method for spreading positive attitudes, but endorsing negative views in the hope of mollifying hostility hasn’t served the liberal cause well. A more effective device, as the Windrush scandal proved, is the telling of individual stories, tracing the contours of the real migrant experience as distinct from faceless abstraction.

Politicians who trade on fear of migrants achieve their goal by dehumanisation – conjuring sinister floods and hordes. The antidote is re-humanisation – bringing the conversation back to real people with real hopes and real contributions to make to society. The xenophobes are winning an argument framed around abstract numbers and targets. They can be disoriented, and ultimately defeated, when those numbers are shown to be human beings.



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