By Donna Covey, Chief Executive of the Refugee Council
A Migration Observatory report published on Sunday, ‘thinking behind the numbers’ (pdf), shows that for all the government’s efforts to appease the public with a harsh stance on immigration – David Cameron’s calls last week for the public to ‘shop’ their illegal immigrant neighbours; tougher questions in the British citizenship test; and not to mention home secretary Theresa May’s infamous cat anecdote - they are hitting the wrong notes when it comes to tuning in to public opinion.
While the government is focusing on reducing foreign students, illegal immigration, and work visas for people from outside the EU, the report shows that most people would instead reduce the number of asylum seekers, and low skilled migrants.
While Cameron tackled family migration in his speech last week, and concluded only the brightest and best would be allowed to come into Britain, his hands are in many ways already tied on some of these issues: firstly, he cannot limit low-skilled EU migrants coming here for work, and secondly, he cannot limit the number of people coming here to claim asylum.
The UK made a commitment in the 1950s when it signed the UN Convention for Refugees, which means we must protect people fleeing their own countries and seeking safety in the UK. The current government is clearly aware of this long-standing obligation.
In his speech last week, we were pleased when Cameron said:
“Britain will always be open to those seeking asylum from persecution. That says something very important about the kind of country we are.”
In fact, in the prime minister’s and immigration minister Damian Green’s major immigration speeches since they came to office, they have made a note of this, knowing that to even hint at limiting the number of asylum seekers coming here would not only cause an outcry from refugee and human rights groups, but it would also contravene international law.
Yet aside from the token mentions, it is disappointing that the government does little to dispel the myth that there are too many asylum seekers here, that many of them are ‘bogus’ and that they take advantage of our welfare system. Migration Observatory’s poll shows that, depressingly, there are still huge misconceptions about who asylum seekers are and the numbers that come here.
Asylum seekers only make up four per cent of the immigrant population, yet respondents to this survey thought of asylum seekers first and foremost when asked about immigration, and secondly, wanted this group to be reduced over other immigrant groups.
This backs up the findings of a Refugee Council poll we ran earlier this year that showed there three quarters of Britons wildly overestimate the small number of refugees granted asylum in the UK. In 2009, 4,175 individuals were granted refugee status, yet 44 per cent of Britons believe it was 100,000 or more. Most also believe refugees are from countries in Eastern Europe including Poland.
On the positive side, our poll showed the majority of people are in fact sympathetic to people fleeing violence and seeking safety here (67 per cent) – but we did not use the term asylum seeker.
Conversely, the Migration Observatory did use this term, but did not give respondents the opportunity to:
“…differentiate attitudes toward asylum seekers perceived to have legitimate claims, and those who perceived not to have legitimate claims.”
In their analysis, they quote an Ipsos Mori poll from February this year that showed 65 per cent said that Britain should accept fewer asylum seekers, but a clear majority agreed that “we must protect genuine asylum seekers who need a place of safety in Britain” (73 per cent).
This attitude towards asylum seekers may be a hangover from the beginning of the 2000s, when a huge increase in asylum seekers coming here brought the issue to the top of the political and news agendas. But despite numbers of asylum seekers being at their lowest since then, there is clearly still much work to be done - both in political debate and particularly in some sections of the media – to shift the stigma attached to the term asylum seeker.
For example, a tendency by some newspapers to use the term ‘former asylum seeker’ in negative stories about people who have been granted refugee status here, only reiterates the derogatory connotations. The single-minded mission by some of the tabloids to prove that asylum seekers are housed in luxury accommodation, when the majority of our clients would tell you their accommodation is basic, sub-standard and over-crowded, is also incredibly unhelpful.
As the Migration Observatory says, it may take time for public perceptions to catch up with changing realities, and we welcome more research from them into this area to help us change those perceptions. But in the meantime, some clear and accurate messaging from our politicians and the media on the reality of the situation for asylum seekers in this country would be an excellent place to start.
• How to create a Telegraph migration scare story - Matt Cavanagh, September 9th 2011
• It may soon be time ‘to draw the line’ on Glasman - Daniel Elton, July 18th 2011
• The bad news in yesterday’s employment stats (and it’s not about migration) -eclan Gaffney, July 14th 2011
• New Migration Watch report misses opportunity for balanced debate on migration - Ruth Grove-White, February 22nd 2011
• Home Office research highlights difficulty of Government’s immigration target - Sarah Mulley, September 6th 2010