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.


Help Haiti

Help Haiti

Child victim of Haiti earthquake 2010, image courtesy WorldVision

Tens of thousands have been killed and more than three million people have been devastated by the massive earthquake that has rocked Haiti, one of the world’s poorest countries. The Disasters Emergency Committee website is This is an umbrella group for key aid agencies, and is coordinating UK giving to the Haiti Earthquake Appeal.

The impact of an earthquake of magnitude seven is almost impossible to imagine.

Two years ago I went with World Vision, one of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) partners, to Armenia, scene of the devastating 1988 earthquake. Even after twenty years, and hundreds of millions of pounds of international aid, Armenia, previously one of the wealthiest Soviet states, is still in poverty, with much of the infrastructure unreliable, unsafe (to Western eyes), or incomplete. The landscape was littered with derelict factories and abandoned buildings. People I talked to told me that they had simply abandoned the last twenty years, and their hopes were that their children would one day be able to live the kinds of lives they had lived before the quake.

Haiti was, by contrast, already one of the poorest states in the world before the earthquake struck. It has for long been one of the least able to organise even ordinary levels of nutrition, housing and sanitation.

Clearly, everyone must make their own mind up about what they want to do, and each is in a different position financially. However, I want to put my weight behind the call to donate to the Haiti Earthquake Appeal. All the monies through DEC will be handled by well known, well trusted charities, including Oxfam, tearfund, actionaid, WorldVision, the British Red Cross, CAFOD and Christian Aid. It’s simple to donate online, or by phone to 0370 60 60 900, or by cheque payable to DEC HAITI EARTHQUAKE and sent it to DEC HAITI EARTHQUAKE, PO BOX 999, LONDON, EC3A 3AA.

What now with Megrahi?

Barak Obama has expressed his disappointment to Gordon Brown. But Gordon Brown continues to insist that he had nothing to do with Megrahi’s release. Who should we believe, what should we think?

Few in the Western world, I think, have any sympathy for the Lockerbie bomber. I certainly don’t.

There are of course many who believe that Megrahi was not the bomber. There are, regrettably, a few who believe that the whole thing was a cynical western plot. Nonetheless, to think that what the bomber did was anything other than one of the most reprehensible acts of cowardly mass murder in recent history is no more nor less than a refusal to face the truth.

However, one of the fundamental principles of justice is that it is blind, and another is that it is not interfered with by politicians or through the political process. Back in the democracies of ancient Greece, citizens wrote on shards of clay pot – ostraka – the names of who they would like to see exiled from the city. Those who ‘won’ this poll were expelled, ostracised. Such a thing surely goes down in history as the clearest early example of the tyranny of the 51% majority. A tyranny indeed, and nothing more than an adult version of the kind of class room bullying which we try to stamp out in schools.

If we had all voted as to whether Megrahi would be released, then he would never have been released. But, on the same basis, if we all voted on every crime and every criminal, the sentences of some would become horrific, while others — celebrities, the media-friendly, the very wealthy who could court our sympathies — would go almost free.

Megrahi’s sentence was passed in a nation which gives compassionate release to those within three months of death from terminal conditions. Why three months? Why not let them die in jail? Scotland may reconsider its laws in the light of the Megrahi affair. But, at the time it passed the sentence, such were the laws. Was Megrahi really so ill? We remember all too well the time when General Pinochet, whose hands were probably no cleaner than Megrahi’s, was not extradited to Spain to stand trial because of his health. Yet Pinochet staged a remarkable recovery on his return to Chile. It is entirely possible that we have had the wool pulled over our eyes.

But justice must remain blind. Nobody, nobody at all, except the justice minister who was charged with reviewing this case, should have applied political pressure, neither before nor after. If we allow political pressure to second-guess justice, then we will end up with the kind of show-trials of Stalin’s Russia, and the kind of injustice that saw a British football supporter jailed in Bulgaria for a sentence of 15 years, even though another man confessed.

Of course Scotland’s justice minister is now deeply unpopular. Of course many people are furious. And of course the entire Western world collectively put its head in its hands when Megrahi appeared to be welcomed back in Libya as some kind of hero or celebrity. But leaders are not leaders if they cannot make unpopular decisions. And Libya’s own decision to take Megrahi back in the manner in which it did has surely done it immeasurable harm in the eyes of the world.

Compassion, the mark of civilisation

Scotland has infuriated the United States by returning the Lockerbie bomber to Libya on compassionate grounds. But the Americans are wrong here, and on two counts.

Lockerbie bomber returns to Libya — BBC. If you’ve been following Radio 4’s PM programme, you’ll have heard one of the parents of one of the US victims stating that no compassion should be shown to the Lockerbie bomber, because he showed none himself. But Scottish justice minister Mr MacAskill argued that the Scottish justice system required justice to be tempered with mercy, and that compassion should not (my paraphrase) only be given to those who themselves showed compassion.

The American view — forcibly put forward by Secretary of State Clinton, among many others, is that they had expected Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi to serve out his life sentence under Scottish law, and that no leniency should be shown. But they are factually and morally incorrect. Factually speaking, Megrahi was sentenced under a legal system that allowed for compassionate release of terminally ill prisoners. This was part of the Scottish legal system when he was sentenced, and could properly have been foreseen at the time. The US view clearly does not agree that compassion should be available to such as Megrahi, but to suggest that somehow the rules of the game have been changed by releasing him in this way is simply incorrect.

But, morally speaking, the American view — or, to be more exact, the view put forward by those speaking for America — that compassion is something which is deserved, and should not be made available where undeserved, is incoherent. It is the very essence of compassion that it is undeserved. Compassion which is deserved is not compassion, but merely justice.

Should we be compassionate? As a general mark of society, most people agree that we should. I’ve never heard people say “our society is too compassionate.” Generally speaking, we regret the compassionlessness of our modern world.

I didn’t lose a family member in the Lockerbie bombing, but I did lose a former friend. I don’t know whether Megrahi was the real Lockerbie bomber, or whether he was framed for a crime he did not commit. If he did commit it, I don’t know whether or not he has ever shown or felt remorse.

But none of these things have a direct relevance on the question of whether or not we should show compassion unearned, or whether we should only reserve it for the good, or the innocent, or the remorseful.

As a committed Christian, I believe that the line on compassion was drawn in the sand a very long time ago. As a democrat, and a Liberal-Democrat, I will argue to the end that it is exactly compassion which distinguishes our society both from anarchy and from tyranny.

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