The Immigration Debate


Anuja Prashar, OBV Graduate and Euro Candidate London Region 2014, shares her analysis on the immigration debate, focusing upon the importance of the methodology used to undertake the research and its consequent effect on the findings.

‘Signifiers of Difference’, are markers which separate any two things to create two or more categories and are playing an important role in shaping statistics that in turn influence the immigration debate. These signifiers of difference to categorize immigrants include educated vs. non-educated, tax payers vs. non-tax payers, European Extended Area (EEA) vs. non-EEA, arriving before 1995 and after, and the most influential one – citizen vs. non-citizen. However, the issue is far more complex than these simple distinctions, because how and what signifies the difference has a profound impact upon which categories we create and the consequent results.

Research from the UK census and other research studies of ethnic minorities reveal that changing social attitudes over time which result in changes of the ‘signifiers of difference’ used within these research studies. The change in what signifies difference and therefore which categories we are to study has an enormous impact upon the manner in which migrant communities are understood and discussed.

A November 2013 study, by Prof Christian Dustmann and Dr Tommaso Frattini from University College London's Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration, addresses these signifiers of difference and creates its own. The report shows that immigrants who arrived after 1999 were 45% less likely to receive state benefits or tax credits than UK natives in the period 2000-2011. Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Prof Dustmann said:

Findings in our study suggest that immigrants who came to the UK after 1999 and over the period 2000-2011 have substantially contributed more in terms of taxes than they have taken out in benefits and transfers”.

With the immigration debate on most people’s political horizons, this report provides material that balances a debate dominated by those who seek to only speak about the negative aspects of immigration. They are indeed welcome results, which belie the rhetoric of the anti-immigration lobby.

However, the report makes a marked difference between recent immigrants from the European Extended Area (EEA) and past immigrants from non-EEA countries, before and after 1995. I would like to focus our attention upon the dangers posited by this arbitrary choice of ‘time-period’ of post 1995 and the even more questionable separation of non-EEA and EEA immigrants into these two arbitrary categories.

The report does not explain why the year 1995 was chosen, especially as migration from the EEA has been occurring since 1973, since the UK joined the EU, and migration from non-EEA regions has been occurring since the colonial period in varying waves. Yet the UCL report is the first time any accurate assessment of economic contribution by immigrants has ever been made.

For example, in my own research, I look at the monitoring of East African Asians in the UK census data from 1971 to 2001. The category of East African Asian was created in the 1971 Census when East African Asian immigration into the UK was increasing steadily.

Most of these immigrants had a ‘British Subject’ status and thus were legally allowed to enter and remain in the UK. In 1972, 30,000 Ugandan refugees (most with ‘British Subject status’) entered the UK when President Idi Amin of Uganda expelled them from the country over night.

The media were hostile to this new wave of immigrants and there was an enormous political backlash at the time. The category of East African Asian appeared in UK Census data along with the customary South Asian category only three times from 1971 until 1991. In 2001 this category performed better than the national average in education, professional achievement and income. This is not dissimilar to the results of the UCL report, however East African Asian migrants will be categorised as non-EEA migrants and thus they would be assumed as contributing less to UK society.

The choice of ‘signifier of difference’ in the UCL report raises another issue. This is a dilemma in presenting both EEA and non-EEA categories as homogenous groups. i.e. that all EEA immigrants are perceived to be exactly the same and may be treated with the same political capital. Also, that all non-EEA immigrants are likewise a very similar group in terms of economic, social, and political capital.

There is a great danger that this simple methodology of using Europe and non-European as the signifier of difference within the immigration debate, will inadvertently feed a tendency to ‘racialise’ the immigration debate. This is evident when you hear some of the responses to the UCL Report, already voiced by those who are ardent anti-immigration advocates.

Sir Andrew Green, of the pressure group Migrationwatch UK, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "We've had roughly four million immigrants under the previous government. Two thirds of those were from outside the European Union. What this report finds is that, since 1995, they have made 'a negative contribution overall', but in the last two years they've contributed 2 per cent. So the verdict for non-EU is that the benefit to the exchequer is minimal or negative. For EU (migrants) it is clearly positive."

The use of signifiers of difference is a customary method of organizing information and data within almost all quantitative research projects. However, within the Immigration debate we must always be aware of the choice of marker used and its consequent potential for mis-interpretation and be prepared to mitigate any of the negative and damaging fallout from this type of prejudiced mis-interpretation.

Anuja Prashar