Glasgow Refugee Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet)

Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland

The immigration debate, what debate?

by Chris Gilligan


The British public are hostile towards immigration and immigrants. That is the received wisdom. Or at least it was until the summer of 2015. Then it appeared that opinion had swung in the opposite direction. At the beginning of 2015 immigrants were widely viewed as benefit tourists flocking to the UK to fleece the welfare state. In the summer the focus turned to the ‘innocent victims of Europe’s migrant crisis’.

David Cameron was caught like a rabbit in the media headlights. If he relented and acceded to calls for the UK to take its fair share of refugees he ran the risk of looking soft on a key issue that he has persistently sought to look tough on. If, on the other hand, he appeared half-hearted in his response he ran the risk of appearing indifferent to obvious suffering. The Guardian’s Patrick Wintour warned Cameron that the needed to carefully ‘judge the true public mood’, or he might pay the price politically.

Taking the public mood as the guide to policy, however, is part of the problem. The public mood can appear to flip so dramatically because it was not hostile to immigration and immigrants in the first place. Study after study of opinion polls shows that the British public are both ambivalent on the issue of immigration and more nuanced than the media would have had us believe. The headline figure for general questions such as ‘do you think there are too many immigrants in the country?’ consistently show that a majority of those polled think there are too many. The same surveys, however, find that the majority of those polled are in favour of students coming from abroad to study in the UK and a majority support skilled workers coming to work in the UK.

Taking the public mood as a guide to policy is also problematic for another reason. Political parties’ reliance on opinion polls and focus groups is symptomatic of how out of touch they are with the lives of ordinary people. Political parties used to be mass membership organisations that provided a forum for debate and deliberation. In the hollow void of what passes for democracy today, they have become vote-catching machines. In last year’s General Election the Conservative Party manifesto talked tough on immigration, but the only new policies on offer were likely to be as ineffective as their previous manifesto commitment to cap the numbers. The Labour Party’s manifesto was led by public opinion rather than any kind of vision. This playing to the gallery is unlikely to inspire the public. Especially since opinion polls also show that a significant majority do not have any faith in politicians handling of immigration policy.

What do we mean by the public anyway? Opinion polls are a very particular way of measuring the public mood. Opinion polls treat every individual view as if it is of equal weight. But not all individual views are of equal political weight. Some respondents to opinion polls live relatively private, unpolitical, lives. Others are politically engaged. During the summer of 2015 members of the public signed online petitions, sent money, visited the camps in Calais, joined protests, and even offered shelter in their own homes. This is a different kind of public mood. It is a public that is being made through action and deliberation.

The public discussion on immigration is confused. It often appears to be based on myths and contradiction. In the words of the satirical website Newsthump, Schrodinger’s Immigrant is both lazing inside the box living off benefits, and at the same time actively running around inside the box stealing jobs. The public are concerned that immigrants are putting a strain on the health service, but also recognise that the health service would be in a worse state if it were not for immigrants coming to work as doctors, nurses and care assistants. The public support more restrictions, but oppose the desperate plight that immigrants are forced into as a consequence of those restrictions. The public favour some types of immigrant more than others, but the ones that they favour tend to be present in larger numbers than those they are more hostile towards. Many of these contradictions exist, and myths continue to be recycled, because there is little public debate.

OpenBordersScotland (OBS) has been established to create debate and discussion on open borders. Our working assumption is that ideas shape actions, consequently any activity in support of immigration and immigrants must have ideas that support this. If, for example, support for immigrants is on the basis that they are vulnerable victims (as Syrian asylum-seekers were being portrayed during the summer of 2015) then proposed actions will be geared towards helping tackle their vulnerability. If, however, immigrants then appear to be aggressors (as Syrian asylum-seekers in Cologne were being portrayed in January 2016) what happens to this support based on victimhood?


Photo: Paolo Cuttitta licensed under CC BY 2.0

Photo: Paolo Cuttitta licensed under CC BY 2.0


The Swiss novelist Max Frisch’s once said of the post-Second World War guest-worker programmes in Europe: ‘We asked for workers, and human beings came instead’. Frisch drew attention to the contradiction between immigration policy based on the idea of migrants as personnel and the reality that migrants are human beings. In the EU today there is talk of every member-state being expected to take their fair share (their quota) of asylum-seekers – as if migrants can be equated to agricultural produce. OBS reject this type of technocratic approach. We believe that human beings should be at the centre of how we think about migration.

OBS want to explore the case for open borders, and the arguments against it, because it touches on every aspect of immigration: not just for or against asylum-seekers, or migrant workers, or any other specific kind of immigrant. We believe that migration is one of the most vitally important issues of the twenty-first century. If you would like to be involved in helping to promote a human-centred approach to migration please get in touch with Chris Gilligan at:  We welcome your ideas and offers of help. If you would like to keep up with the debate you can link up with us via social media on our blog, Twitter or Facebook.


Chris Gilligan is a founding member of open borders Scotland. He is also the editor of The Public and the Politics of Immigration Controls, a special issue of the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies published in August 2015.


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This entry was posted on February 11, 2016 by in Comment and tagged , , , , , .
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