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Decoupling immigration and race in Britain

Statistics show that attitudes towards immigration and race in Britain have changed.

Last updated: 24 Jan 2014 12:13
Rumy Hasan

Rumy Hasan is a senior lecturer at SPRU, University of Sussex.
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It wasn't until the 1980s that mainstream political parties stopped using the phrase 'coloured immigration' [EPA]

In the hue and cry in Britain - and indeed to some extent, in other EU countries - over the impending arrival of migrants from the new accession states of Bulgaria and Romania, one factor that has historically been closely associated with immigration is thankfully missing - that of race. This has been one consequence of the arrival of large numbers of East Europeans since 2004 when eight former Eastern bloc countries (whose populations are almost entirely white) were given full EU membership. It follows that opposition to more migrants from Eastern Europe stems from other factors.

Contrast this with the situation in the first three decades of immigration post-World War II when most migrants were non-whites from colonies and former colonies in the Caribbean, South Asia, and East Africa. It is important to remember that migrants from the Caribbean colonies - who were often enticed to work in the booming post-war economy - were British subjects so had the right to enter Britain without restriction. Hostility to what was then described as "coloured immigration" was clearly a manifestation of racism and discussed as the "colour" or "race relations problem".

It was not until the 1980s - and the outbreak of riots throughout that decade by young urban West Indians - that there was finally agreement among mainstream political parties that it was no longer appropriate to deem settlers and their children from the former colonies as "coloured immigrants" but rather to regard them as "Black British" or "British Asian" and consider them as fellow citizens.

Though racism still exists, great progress has been made: In practically all walks of life, non-whites are now very much part of the landscape of British society. And this has also applied to more recent settlers: Mo Farah's achievements on the athletic track have been warmly embraced, so much that he became one of the foremost symbols of the London 2012 Olympics. Born in Somalia, he was celebrated as a great British sporting hero, no less than Bradley Wiggins or Ben Ainslie. Similarly, the fact that many other Team GB members were black or had a black parent was of little import.

A key contributory factor for the widespread opposition to immigration is that the host population has serious concerns from the impact of large-scale, sudden inflows of new settlers not only on economic factors such as jobs and wages, together with pressure on public services, but also on the impact on communities.

But while it is fair to say that the present opposition to immigration is largely devoid of the poisonous racism of yesteryear, nevertheless the level of opposition is very high. In a 2007 Ipsos-MORI poll - the year before the financial crisis began - 64 percent said that immigration controls should be much tougher and a further 12 percent said it should be stopped altogether, while 68 percent agreed that there were already too many immigrants in Britain.

Indeed, it appears that opposition to immigration has increased further in the intervening years. The current British Social Attitudes Survey (highlighted by a BBC 2 programme "The truth about immigration" in January) suggests that 77 percent of Britons want to see a cut in immigration - and 56 percent want to see a major crackdown. Moreover, 47 percent thought immigration was bad for the economy, and among the 31 percent of respondents who said it was good for the economy, half wanted to see immigration reduced.

What is interesting and perhaps counter-intuitive is that there is also substantial opposition to immigration from ethnic and religious minorities. In data compiled by Birkbeck College academics Eric Kaufman and Gareth Harris from Citizenship Surveys for 2007-2011 for the Demos think-tank, 77 percent of UK-born Sikhs, 65 percent of UK-born Hindus and 55 percent of UK-born Muslims want to reduce immigration; though these are significant majorities, they are lower than the 83 percent of UK-born white British who want to reduce immigration. There was no significant difference along class lines.

The Demos project "Mapping Integration" (whose steering committee is chaired by former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission Trevor Phillips and on which I also sit) seeks to understand the core reasons for this quite extraordinary unease with immigration - an issue that was of minimal concern in the early 1990s. It is such poll findings that are having a profound political impact: from Labour to the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), clamping down hard on immigration seems to be the settled political will. It is this issue that is driving the possibility of UKIP gaining the highest votes in this year's EU elections and, moreover, it might also result in a "No" vote in the promised referendum on Britain's membership of the EU.

A key contributory factor for the widespread opposition to immigration is that the host population has serious concerns from the impact of large-scale, sudden inflows of new settlers not only on economic factors such as jobs and wages, together with pressure on public services, but also on the impact on communities. The latter has been an issue that has historically been neglected. But evidence is likely to show that where the character of a neighbourhood undergoes rapid change by newcomers, many of the indigenous population, apart from voicing opposition to this change, simply vote with their feet; this phenomenon is commonly referred to as "white flight". It appears to be particularly acute in London whose white British population fell from 58 percent in 2001 to 45 percent in 2011 - as 600,000 White Londoners left the capital city.

Nevertheless, given the firm desire to implement even stricter immigration controls on the part of both white and ethnic minority British citizens, the old refrain that hostility to immigration was code for racism no longer holds; to a significant extent, immigration and race have been decoupled.

Attention now needs to turn with much vigour on the part of national and local governments to the task of integrating well the large numbers of immigrants who have settled in the country. If this is done properly, there is every reason to hope that the issue of immigration will subside in importance to the levels obtained in the early 1990s, and Britain will be the better for it. The findings of the Demos project should aid in not only providing solid evidence but also in suggesting pointers to efficacious policies in this regard, not just in Britain but also in other developed countries with large immigrant communities.

Rumy Hasan is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sussex and author of Multiculturalism: Some Inconvenient Truths.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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