Jonathan Portes, Director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR), talks to SRtRC about the impact of an uniformed debate about immigration.
it is important that they (politicians) are saying ‘immigration is not the cause of youth unemployment, it is not the cause of problems within our health service, its not the cause of the housing crisis."
Jonathan Portes, Director, The National Institute for Economic & Social Research
In the second part of this three part series, Jonathan discusses the use of language and the political and media discourse surrounding the issue of immigration.
What do you think about certain politicians and certain sections of the media using umbrella terms like ‘migrants’ and ‘immigrants’ when really they are talking about specific groups like Asylum Seekers or Undocumented Migrants? Is this down to a lack of understanding or is it something more calculated?
"Well, there is a definition of immigrants that used by statistical agencies and hence used by economic researchers like us when we analyse this kind of information and that is; ‘people who come from abroad and tend to stay in a new country for a reasonable period of time i.e. a year or more. That is a neutral definition used by statisticians, it’s not intended to be a value judgement, it’s just mean to help us discuss things in the right way."
"Within that of course, there are very different types of immigration and there are very different types of immigrant. It is quite clear that, for example, the characteristics of people who come to the UK from Eastern Europe by making use of their rights as part of the EU directives are quite different from those people who are trying to come to the UK because they are fleeing the civil war in Syria."
"That is not to say that one type of immigration is necessarily better or worse, or that we should be happier about a particular type of immigration – but it is important to remember that they are very different."
Show Racism the Red Card believes that some young people are picking up specific messages from certain sections of the media What do you think about the role of the media in the immigration debate more generally?
"It is clear that there is an agenda from some parts of the media and that we have seen either deliberate or unintentional misreporting or misappropriation of the facts, especially by certain newspapers. Immigration is perhaps one of the more obvious examples of this but it is by no means the only occasion in which we see poor report, either through ignorance or malice."
"Unfortunately, I think we have to accept that this (certain sections of the media’s irresponsible journalism) is a fact of life. I think that it is the job of people like me to go out there and keep on banging on with the facts, meanwhile but probably more importantly, it is also the job of politicians to go out there and be prepared to tell people some hard truths; it is important that they are saying ‘immigration is not the cause of youth unemployment, it is not the cause of problems within our health service, its not the cause of the housing crisis."
"Immigration does affect all of those things; sometimes positively and sometimes negatively but actually it is in no way the main problem or issue. To sort out youth unemployment we have to do something for our young people, to sort out the housing crisis we need to build more houses, to sort out the NHS we have to decide what sort of funding and organisation we want as a health service for this country for the medium to long term."
"I am certainly not saying that I have the answers to all of these problems but what I do know is that cutting off or stopping immigration is not the answer to any of those problems and it is quite important that politicians are out there saying ‘Anyone who is telling you that cutting immigration will solve these issues or make things magically better is pedalling a false prospectus’."
"It is as though some people think that cutting immigration will magically solve all of the countries problems and that just is not true."
Is that why there is a reticence among some politicians to talk about immigration in a balanced, factual way?
"I don’t think that it is that simple. I think that some politicians genuine believe that immigration is the root cause of these types of problems, some politicians are scared to talk about immigration at all for fear of how it will be received and some politicians are trying to divert attention away from their own failings."
"To a certain extent I think that ‘politicians’ as a whole get a bit of a bad rap; I was a civil servant myself for a number of years and all of the politicians I worked with across all parties were for the most part trying to do their best for the country to the best of their abilities, but I do think that on this issue it would be nice to see politicians being prepared to stand up and tell the truth about immigration."
We have seen immigrants targeted as result of issues with systems in this country; language testing for international students and backlogs within the passport office being two examples. Why do you think that such examples lead to individuals becoming scapegoats rather than a wider criticism of the systems?
"I think to a certain extent that is human nature. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of people and hugely complex systems and bureaucracies, and at a time in which the government, for all sorts of other reasons, is trying to cut public spending there is a lot of pressure on civil servants and things go wrong."
"That is what happened in the passport office and that is probably what happened with language testing for students; just not enough resources to administer the system properly."
"In that regard it is not dissimilar to what is happening in the benefits system at the same time; there is administrative chaos in the disability benefits system and this is another area that I have quite a lot of interest in. Obviously, that has nothing to do with immigration but is to do with the pressure of trying to deliver public services to hundreds of thousands of people with less money and fewer resources; it is inevitable that things go wrong."
What did you make of the BBC documentary ‘Too many Immigrants?’ Were you happy with the balance of it?
"There were a number of academics and ‘experts’ like myself involved in providing short, factual statements about immigration but we weren’t really very central to the programme, it was much more a portrait of a number of individual immigrants and a number of British people with particular attitudes so in that sense it was very revealing."
"I thought it was quite interesting that actual contact and learning more about the realities of immigration does actually change people’s views and I suppose in that sense I thought it was one of the media’s better attempts to discuss the subject of immigration."
Read part one of SRtRC's interview with Jonathan Portes Director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) here