Those migrants, what are they like?

Those migrants, what are they like?

Pew Global has released a fascinating set of maps for determining who is migrating to and from your country, and where they are going.

During the recent UK General Election, I took part in three hustings debates. In one of them, one of the candidates answered every question beginning “We all know the problem is immigration”.

But how much immigration is there actually about? Most of the shock figures that appear in well-known tabloids are about numbers arriving, or, even better (from the point of view of shocks), numbers who might well be about to arrive. We almost never hear about people who are leaving.

So, what’s the figure?

According to Pew, in 2013 there were 7.82 million people living in the UK who were born in other countries. However, there were 5 million people born in the UK living in other countries. In other words, net immigration is 2.82 million.

2.82 million sounds rather a lot — this is the problem with any kind of demographic figures: they always sound enormous. But how many is it really?

Well, the UK population is just over 63 million. That means that net immigration is just shy of 4.5%, so less than one person in twenty.

Ipsos Mori, the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London have taken some delight in surveying people about what they think statistics are, versus what they really are. Kindly, helpfully, and with only a very small amount of appropriate schadenfreude, they have published the results here.

In 2013, the consensus estimate by the British population was that immigration was at 31%. The real figure, is no more than 15% even when hidden and illegal immigrants are factored in. That means that people imagine that total immigration is twice as much as it really is, and the real figure for net immigration (which is what people typically mean when they talk about ‘the problem of immigration’) is only one seventh of that.

Bizarrely, the consensus estimate of British people is that 30% of the population are Black or Asian. The real figure is 11%, or 14% if we include mixed and other non-white ethnic groups. So, despite people going on endlessly about Poles coming to Britain, there’s a persistent imagined view that almost all immigrants are non-white. As it happens, just 5% of the population are Muslims, but on average people think that 24% of the population are Muslims.

Here’s another fact about internationalism. On average, British people believe that 26% of government spending goes on foreign aid. The true figure is 1.1%.

Of Ipsos Mori’s discovered top ten misconceptions, all of them skew people towards believing things in a more right-wing, anti-minority, anti-benefits, Britain-is-on-the-edge-of-a-cataclysm sort of way. Most people think crime is rising, when, in fact, it’s been falling for years. One third of people think we spend more on Job Seekers Allowance than pensions. Actually, we spend 15x as much on pensions. The public thinks that benefit fraud accounts for a quarter of all the money spent on benefits. In fact, it’s 0.7%. Around one in two-hundred girls under sixteen get pregnant each year. The public thinks its twenty-five times that level.

Let’s get back to immigration.

One of the things that people who are desperately concerned about immigration usually say to me at some point in a conversation is “this country is only large enough for a certain number of people”. I recall a leader of one of the political parties saying last year that Britain was the most densely populated country in Europe.

Is it?

The most densely populated country in Europe is Malta, at 1,261 people per square kilometre. Ok, Malta isn’t very big, so let’s move on to the next. This is the Netherlands at 394 people per square kilometre, followed by Belgium at 344 people per square kilometre. The UK is fourth, but the figure is just 246 — a mere two-thirds the density of the Netherlands. Germany is barely less, at 225. Interestingly, the bulk of the wealthiest and most developed countries in Europe are in the top half of the table, with the bulk of the less developed in the lower half.

Ah! Say those who are concerned — Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium may be like that, but who takes in all the asylum seekers, eh?

There is a desperately common (and rather desperate) belief that Britain has a more or less open door policy to asylum seekers, while the rest of Europe sit tightly behind their walls, laughing at the soft-touch Brits.

But what are the facts?

Germany, France and the UK have the largest populations, so, self-evidently, they should be accepting the largest numbers. But what about accepted asylum seekers per inhabitant?

Well, the most welcoming country is Malta, at 348 per 100,000, 2012 figures.

The wider table looks like this:

Country Total number Per 100 000 inhabitants
1 Malta 625 348
2 Sweden 15,290 161
3 Norway 6,125 123
4 Austria 6,000 71
5 Switzerland 4,580 58
6 Belgium 5,880 53
7 Denmark 2,105 38
8 Netherlands 5,920 35
9 Finland 1,840 34
10 Germany 22,165 27
11 United Kingdom 14,570 23
12 France 14,325 22
13 Italy 9,270 15
14 Greece 625 1
15 Spain 565 1

The actual figures — not just the rankings — are worth looking at. By mid-April this year, 1,700 migrants are believed to have died in the Mediterranean alone, which would extrapolate to perhaps 6,800 by the end of the year. Britain welcomed barely more than twice that number in 2012 from the entire world. We are a nation that loves to respond with shock, and, sometimes, donations, when we read about the Mediterranean migrant deaths and the Nepal earthquake, but our doors remain almost entirely closed for those fleeing persecution in fear of their lives. Judging by what we think we give as a nation, compared to what we actually give, we begrudge even the 1½p in the tax pound that goes to international development.

However we look at it, at just one accepted asylum seeker for every five thousand people in the country in 2012, Britain is not being swamped.

So, these migrants, what are they really like? The answer is, they’re a lot like the rest of us, at our best. The University of Oxford has published some helpful data. Most migrants are here to work. They are people who have (to take a phrase from the ’80s) got on their bikes and gone where the work is. They work hard, often in jobs that don’t attract much local talent, largely because they are unappetising, don’t offer much career progression, take a lot of hard work and unsociable hours, and don’t pay particularly well. Many of them, of course, are highly skilled. Without international colleagues, the NHS would collapse tomorrow. Some of them — my wife, who is a Dutch translator, is one of them — are crucial for Britain’s ability to trade with the world.

During the ’80s and ’90s, it was becoming socially unacceptable to be racist. In 2001, all that began to change. Asylum seekers — or ‘bogus asylum seekers’ as they were always described in the tabloids — suddenly became a legitimate target of hatred and derision, not just for tongue-in-cheek journalists, but also for politicians on both sides of the house. Following that, it became acceptable to be racist about East Europeans. In the last year, it seems that all Europeans are now acceptable targets.

Do we really want to go back to the days when racist abuse was shouted openly on any street at someone who looked different, or spoke a different language?

Racism does not just harm the people subjected to it. Even closet racism, kept in check by a veneer of socialisation, makes us meaner people, less able to appreciate the amazing diversity of the world around us, less open to new cultural experiences.

If you are ethnically English, then at least some of your ancestors came to these shores during The Great Migration. Others may have arrived later as Vikings, Normans, or Huguenots. If ethnically Welsh or Scots, they will have arrived some time earlier. But they still arrived.

This, of course, is a common-place, and widely discarded as irrelevant by those who wish to keep Britain for those whose families arrived before 1935, which appears to be the cut-off point in the ‘us versus them’ epistemology.

The actual extent of it, though, is only now being scientifically established.


Genetic study of UK population

Genetic study of UK population

Genetic studies, such as that discussed in the Guardian in March, the map from which is reproduced here, show what a mish-mash we are. Genome analysis gives far more comfort to those who want Scotland, Wales, Devon and Cornwall to secede than those who want to keep the Europeans and others out, or else leave them to their own devices. For those of us living in South and Central England, we are 30% German, 40% French, 11% Danish and a surprising 9% Belgian. Interestingly — and a counter to the secessionists — the genetic evidence suggests that the incoming Angles, Saxons and Jutes in the 5th-7th centuries did not wipe out or displace the original British inhabitants. Instead, they married them, and brought up a nation with a rich, blended, multi-threaded cultural inheritance.

The immigrants are not merely like us. They are us.

Quite literally, migration is in our DNA.


Back to Top