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The Incovenient Truth About the British Immigration Debate

 

Monday, October 1, 2007.

 

By Keith Best

 

The racist who cries that some of his best friends are black does not mitigate the offensive nature of his sentiments. It is essential that we have an informed public debate about migration but one that is well-rounded, researched and based on facts and not ignorant prejudice.

 

Unfortunately, in the era of truncated media headlines in which we live we are likely to see comments taken out of context and convey a message contrary to what is intended.

 

That is why there is an added responsibility on leading commentators to ensure that their comments are balanced and factually based rather than mere assertions.

 

Heads of public bodies and agencies should not seek refuge in explaining that their words were misused – they should not be so naïve to have issued them in ways that can be subject to that. It is easy for it to happen, often to the horror of those making such statements as I have discovered myself, and much more difficult to ensure that balance will endure the rigours of media reporting.

 

Ministerial statements reported about removing illegal migrants without explaining from where the £5 billion needed to do so would come mislead the public. Talk of making life unpleasant for migrants sets the mood music and lends succour to those who want a scapegoat for society’s ills and it is no good then adding as a postscript that they make a valuable contribution to our economy – the damage has been done.

 

It is wrong where a Chief Constable in search of more funds, however legitimate, has remarks twisted into a headline about greater criminality among migrants. It is wrong for reports of the Chairman of a major institution to talk of migrants having to pay more for public services without describing the finances involved set against the contribution made to the public exchequer by those same migrants.

 

It is wrong for a BBC channel to identify child benefit fraud among some Polish workers without setting out the small number involved against the overwhelming majority of those who are single and law-abiding.

 

It is wrong of a politician to describe glibly how all EU citizens should apply for work permits to come to the UK without explaining that this would require the UK to leave the EU and the likelihood of our own citizens no longer having unrestricted access to the European labour market. Generalisations rather than researched specifics do not advance such a debate.

 

These are just examples from the last two weeks – there are others that are legion. Numbers seem to matter in this issue – so let us be told the true nature of net immigration against the backdrop of the numbers in at least two thousand a week who leave the UK permanently to emigrate.

 

If, as at present, such statistics are imperfect and based on a sample of only 2 per cent of movements, treating those who enter or leave for more than 12 months as being permanently immigrating or emigrating, then, let all comments based on those figures carry a health warning.

 

Poor statistics, ignorance about the allocation of housing and eligibility for public benefits and the real lives and different categories of migrants ensures banality and a breeding ground for xenophobia and prejudice.

 

That is exacerbated when politicians (wrongly, as many opinion polls indicate) assume that the way in which to assuage genuine public concerns about migration is to talk of tough measures rather than creating a fairer society based on human rights and justice for all, whatever their provenance.

 

Leadership means talking about how to remove the increasing scandal of exploitation, trafficking and an underclass that besmirches the name of Britain.

 

That requires sensitivity and a denial of pandering to prejudice rather than cleverness in knowing how to grab a headline at the expense of vulnerable individuals. If we want a society at ease with itself, that is what we should be hearing about.

 

Keith Best is the head of Immigration Advisory Service - a Charity working for the welfare of migrants

 

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