Perhaps unsurprisingly, immigration was raised again at last night’s second televised debate. But the discussion failed to address the nuances of a very complicated subject.
Nick Clegg — who made the most effort to engage with some of the issues — suggested that the estimated 500,000 people currently living here illegally should be given some kind of status so that they can be brought into the taxation system
Cameron warned that this could lead to “more claims for asylum”, a worrying conflation of economic migrants and asylum-seekers.
Immigrants who come to the UK seeking work are very different from those fleeing conflict in their home countries. It is misleading to suggest that humane treatment of the latter group of individuals would lead to a flood of people seeking asylum (which, it must be noted, is a legal right).
Excluding economic migrants (a completely separate group), the numbers of people seeking asylum clearly correlates with human rights abuses in their home countries. In 2007, it was estimated that 50 per cent of asylum-seekers remaining in this country came from Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and Zimbabwe. There was a steep rise of Zimbabwean asylum-seekers in 2000, in line with increased human rights abuses.
People fleeing conflict come here because they are seeking protection and remain because they cannot return home. Before coming, they are generally unaware of the situation they will face upon arrival.
Both Brown and Cameron refused to engage with the fact that, however you look at it, there are many people living here illegally, off the radar. Brown rejected Clegg’s idea (also endorsed by Boris Johnson) outright, saying that the solution was to “deport them”. This hardline rhetoric betrays another gross oversimplification: after all, how exactly do you deport people when there is no official record of them? And what about the many asylum-seekers who are unable to return to their home country because it is unsafe, or logistically impossible?
Immigration is clearly an important issue in this election. But, for all the calls for an “open and frank discussion”, what we have seen is a frighteningly narrow debate, pandering to the ill-informed framework established by the far right. Populist talk of immigration caps and deportation is a dangerously simplistic answer to a very complicated problem.