The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented levels of pain and suffering. With lives torn apart and livelihoods destroyed, the last few months have proved an immense challenge to all. Yet amid this hardship, one notable positive has been the newfound sense of unity and togetherness that has been fostered. With migrants in particular commended for their invaluable contributions to the national fight against the virus, it is important to consider whether the pandemic will prompt a thorough recalibration of attitudes towards immigration.
Recent polling suggests that this process is already underway. As part of fieldwork carried out in April, Hope Not Hate asked members of the public whether they agreed that overseas nationals working as doctors and nurses during the COVID-19 crisis should be offered automatic British citizenship. A massive 77% of respondents said they agreed. Even more tellingly, around half of all respondents were also in favour of offering citizenship to agricultural and supermarket workers.
These statistics are indicative of a major uptick in the public’s appreciation of what immigrants bring to the country. In recent years, the air has been thick with the idea that there are ‘too many immigrants in Britain’, a sentiment embodied by the previous government’s pledge to reduce inward migration to the ‘tens of thousands’.
Not only this, but research has consistently revealed the British public’s particular support for reducing the number of ‘low-skilled’ migrants entering the country. With supermarket staff, agricultural workers and care workers all deemed ‘low-skilled’ in the eyes of the new points-based immigration system, the national fight against the virus appears to have demonstrated that migrants of all occupations contribute towards the healthy functioning of the United Kingdom.
In addition, the COVID-19 era appears to have reversed a number of harmful stereotypes surrounding immigration. One such stereotype is the notion that migrants place ‘too much pressure on public services’, a statement supported by 76% of respondents in a 2011 Ipsos MORI survey. If recent weeks have made one thing abundantly clear, it is that public services such as the NHS would simply not function effectively were it not for the invaluable work of migrants.
Yet rather than constituting a new era in public opinion on immigration, the softening of attitudes in the COVID-19 era can be seen as forming part of a much longer-term trend. In 2012, 70% of respondents to an Ipsos MORI survey agreed with the statement ‘there are too many immigrants in Britain’. By 2017, this had fallen by 25 percentage points.
Further to this, the salience of immigration as a political issue has declined since the EU referendum, a process triggered by a decline in the public’s level of concern. Ipsos MORI asked those who had become less concerned by this shift in attitudes had taken place, and the most common answer was that ‘the national debate on immigration had highlighted how much immigrants contribute to the UK. With this in mind, the recent sense of appreciation is not quite so unprecedented.
Whilst views on immigration appear to be becoming more favourable over time, it is not as simple as it may seem. It should be borne in mind that the gradual softening has also been tied to the public’s reassurance that fewer immigrants will come to the UK now that Brexit is a certainty. Taking this into account, it is important to treat any positive shift in mood with a degree of caution.
Despite being ranked by the European Social Survey as among the least anti-immigration out of 12 countries, the figure cannot be taken at surface value. Further analysis by the same survey shows that only 27% of British people hold unfavourable views on whether immigration ‘makes the country a better or worse place to live’. Whilst a country may feel optimistic about the immigrants already residing, it may be against the idea of continuous flows of migration in the future. That is to say, a country may view immigrants as making it a better place to live, but prefer fewer immigrants in coming years. Clearly, views towards immigration are complex and fluctuate, thus any changes brought about by the pandemic may not stand the test of time.
With this growing trend towards positive views on immigration however, the COVID-19 pandemic has also prompted a rise in racism and xenophobia, two things closely related to staunchly anti-immigrant views. This sinister rise has been encapsulated in the far-right stickers that have been found in various parts of the country, bearing slogans such as ‘Open border, virus disorder’ and ‘pubs closed, borders open’ Moreover, Chinese students have reported incidents of racist abuse. Robin Zhang, a postgraduate student in Cardiff reported being taunted by four men shouting ‘Hey!
It is evident that, whilst in many ways the UK’s attitude towards immigration was softening, the outbreak of a pandemic has exacerbated racist tendencies in other ways. Clearly, the UK has got far to go if it wants to declare itself anti-racism and entirely pro-immigration. However, the spirit of unity and tolerance fostered through the collective fight against COVID-19 is certainly a positive step.