Antifrank looks at The politics of immigration and asylum
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” These are words which find absolutely no purchase in Britain in 2015. Fully 50% this month see immigration as one of the three most important issues facing Britain in Ipsos MORI’s regular poll for the Economist and it’s a safe bet that few of them are concerned that Britain isn’t getting enough foreigners.
Proving anything with statistics
If one were just to look at statistics, it isn’t immediately obvious why this should be such a high concern right now. From the most recent figures available, net immigration appears to have risen (for the year to March 2015 it was estimated at 330,000). This is a record high, but not out of all proportion with previous years:
It certainly doesn’t account for the recent jumps in the level of concern currently being expressed (only 34% named immigration as one of the three most important issues facing Britain as recently as January). And it doesn’t seem to be a matter of personal experience. For example, 47% of the Welsh named immigration as the single most important issue facing Britain today but barely one in twenty Welsh residents are not British citizens.
Asylum seekers are broadly static according to the latest figures, just under 26,000 for the year to June 2015, up 10% on the previous year but far lower than the 84,000 in 2012. Decisions on these applications are speeding up, running at three times the rate of a year ago. Nor are they being waved through – the refusal rate for initial decisions for the first quarter of this year (64%) is almost exactly the same as it was in the first quarter of 2014. Only applications from Eritrea, Iran, Syria and Sudan are normally succeeding. Appeals are also running at a steady 66% dismissal rate.
So why are the public so worked up about the subject? In short, the media. This year we have been treated to many pictures of boatloads of migrants crossing the Mediterranean and the Aegean and to blood-curdling accounts of throngs of migrants at Calais (and consequent disruption to Channel Tunnel services). News has percolated back of the wall that the Hungarians are erecting on their Serbian border. More recently, we have seen chaos on the Greek/Macedonian border. The British public are concluding, correctly, that Europe is seeing an unprecedented wave of asylum-seeking and believe, incorrectly, that Britain is in the frontline of this. With this conclusion floating on top of a general sense that Britain does not have a grip on more general types of immigration, the public fear the worst.
This sense is remarkably pervasive in some groups. 47% of over 65 year olds and 47% of red top readers named immigration as the single most important issue facing Britain today. 66% of Conservative voters and 82% of UKIP voters named it as one of the top three most important issues facing Britain today. Make no mistake, having a clear policy on immigration that commands public confidence is going to be vital for all political parties in this Parliament. So far none of the parties seem to have come anywhere near giving the public confidence in their policies.
In this respect, the British public are remarkably European (though with far less justification than much of their fellow EU citizens). Britain is mid-table in the EU in terms of the percentage of residents who are citizens of other countries and Britain is now accepting around just 4% of new asylum applications in the EU. Hungary detained as many migrants in a day this week as Britain this year has been averaging for asylum applications in a month. 50,000 arrived in Greece in July alone. Germany is expecting 800,000 asylum applications this year. These numbers give some context to the British immigration figures cited above.
This pressure on the EU is not likely to subside any time soon and the UN is urging EU member states to share the burden equitably. Jean-Claude Juncker is also looking for an EU-wide solution (he might have better luck if he didn’t gratuitously insult the Prime Minister of one of the countries whose co-operation he is now seeking).
So Britain is going to come under renewed pressure from the rest of the EU to take more asylum seekers. This is unlikely to go down well at home, to put it mildly.
Staying a step ahead
The Prime Minister has a short term problem of calming public fears, which are mostly unjustified. He has a medium term problem that the EU is going to be pressuring Britain to take far more asylum seekers, which most British people see no justification for. And he has a long term problem that he has no clear public message to give about the level of immigration that Britain can expect and deal with, nor of how to stem the influx into Europe of refugees. Right now, he does not obviously have a plan to deal with any of these.
Against this background, you would expect the Conservatives to be suffering in the polls. Far from it. Labour take a more pro-immigration approach than the Conservatives, so are poorly placed to benefit (Jeremy Corbyn believes that migration is a “global phenomenon” and that non-EU immigration into the UK “is mainly family reunion issues”). Despite UKIP having majored heavily on immigration control, UKIP’s poll ratings haven’t flickered in the last few weeks: perhaps Nigel Farage’s post-election antics have put some off; more likely, UKIP’s absence from the airwaves has left voters not making the connection between their concern about immigration and UKIP.
In the absence of any meaningful opposition, the Conservatives’ poll ratings are buoyant. This will not last if the public conclude that they are out of their depth on what they regard as the number one issue confronting Britain. Anti-immigrant parties of different degrees of nativism have been polling well in countries as diverse as France, Sweden, Hungary and Denmark. With UKIP angling to fill that space in Britain, the Conservatives probably only have a short breathing space.
How should they use it? Their great difficulty is that the Prime Minister’s past commitments on immigration have been comprehensively broken so his word is going to be disbelieved by many on this subject. So they need to concentrate on actions rather than words. The increased urgency at an EU level could assist the Prime Minister. If he can get substantive movement on intra-EU migration, he may well be inclined to agree to take more asylum-seekers (he could triple the annual number and still Britain would have fewer asylum seekers than it had in 2012). But the progress would need to be in that order to make it saleable to the British public. And it assumes that David Cameron is looking for substantive change of the EU rather than something cosmetic.
That would probably see David Cameron’s term as Prime Minister out. If he does not achieve something on this front, he could rapidly find his second term unravelling. He tends to get tripped up by subjects that he’d not been focussing on. This could be his downfall.
In the long term, the EU is certain to continue to face a continual trail of huddled masses. This is not a function of the world becoming more disordered (the opposite is true) but of increased mobility, enabling wealthier asylum seekers and economic migrants to seek out their preferred destination to make a new life. They cannot be blamed on an individual level – we would probably do the same ourselves in their shoes – but the social consequences and the levels of asylum seekers and migration that we and our European neighbours can live with as a society will need to be addressed and readdressed for many years. This is a discussion that has barely started in Britain.