Immigrants are not the problem

Migrant workers protest. Photo: Channnel 4

JVL Introduction

Kenan Malik looks at long-term trends in public attitudes to immigration and argues that migrants are not the problem. The problem stems, rather, from the disengagement of so many people in the population at large from mainstream politics and institutions, and a disenchantment with traditional political parties and leaders.

Social and economic policies have made societies more atomised, polarised and unequal and made many feel abandoned and unheard. It is all too easy to blame immigrants.


Talk of integration is a sideshow in a society where many feel unheard

Migrants are the least of our problems in a disenfranchised and atomised country

Kenan Malik, Observer
28 Apr 2019


Uncontrolled migrant flows have made many in Europe more hostile to immigration. The failure of migrants to integrate has helped create more fractured societies and exacerbated fears. The combination of the two has driven support for the far right.

These are almost uncontested views these days. The latest warning came from Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change, which insists in a new report that “a credible policy agenda on integration is a crucial task for social democratic parties… necessary to combat the electoral success of rightwing populism”.

There is little question that Europe-wide there are popular anxieties about migration, but are such worries driven by uncontrolled flows and a failure of migrants to integrate?

Two sociologists, Vera Messing and Bence Ságvári, have been tracking long-term trends in public attitudes to immigration using the European Social Survey (ESS), a biannual survey of attitudes across the continent conducted since 2002.

Their first substantial study was published two years ago. Now they have released an updated report that includes data from ESS surveys conducted after the 2015 migration crisis. Both make fascinating reading.

There is, Messing and Ságvári observed in their original study, “a strong correlation” between migrant levels in a country and attitudes towards them, but not the obvious one: “Countries with a negligible share of migrants are the most hostile, while in countries where migrants’ presence in the society is large are actually the most tolerant.”

What shapes hostility is not the presence of migrants but perceptions of trust and cohesion. People in countries “with a high level of general and institutional trust”, the authors note, “fear migration the least”. Where people are more disengaged from social institutions, and feel that such institutions ignore their needs, they are also more hostile to migrants.

Messing and Ságvári’s latest study confirms these findings. It uses ESS survey data from 2016 and 2017 – that is, after the 2015 migration crisis, when the arrival in Europe of more than a million undocumented migrants created panic and hardened anti-migrant rhetoric among politicians and policymakers. But what effect did the crisis have on public attitudes? The conclusions may surprise some.

Overall, Messing and Ságvári suggest, the 2015 rise in migration had little impact on attitudes in Europe. Britain has become less hostile towards immigrants, as have Ireland and Portugal. Hungary has become significantly more hostile. But overall the change has been minimal. Other studies have confirmed these findings. Europeans today appear more favourable towards immigration than they were at the beginning of the 00s.

Anxieties about migration are not driven by migration itself. Rather, migration has become symbolic of broader social fears. Whether such social anxieties express themselves in anti-migrant sentiment, and the extent to which they do so, depends, the authors suggest, on how the debate about immigration is conducted within a particular country and the role played by governments, politicians and the media.

Politicians often talk of the failure of integration as a key factor in the erosion of the social fabric. Yet the real social fracturing with which they are grappling today comes not from the inability of migrants to integrate but from the disengagement of many sections of the electorate from mainstream politics and institutions and from their disenchantment with traditional political parties and leaders. That’s the background for the rise of populism and the far right.

Polls have constantly shown that minority groups in Britain feel more attached to the idea of “Britishness” than do white Britons. When a study on social attitudes in France described the nation as “fractured” and “tribal”, it was referring not to immigrant groups but to the majority populations. And yet the problem continues to be seen primarily as one of minorities failing to integrate.

The problem we face is not one of integration, as it is commonly perceived. It is the fraying of relationships between individuals, communities and society. Those relationships have unravelled in recent years because social and economic policies have made societies more atomised, polarised and unequal and made many feel abandoned and unheard. This has led to growing distrust between sections of the populations and traditional political institutions. It has also led to growing distance between some minority communities and wider society.

So long as we frame the problem in such a way that immigrants are viewed as a problem to be solved, and integration is viewed as the solution to that problem, then the real questions of social fracturing will remain unaddressed.


• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist