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20 April 2011

Tories are out of touch on immigration

80 per cent believe that helping vulnerable people is an intrinsic part of being British.

By Donna Covey

David Cameron last week lamented the “pressure”, “discomfort” and “disjointedness” that immigration has caused in our communities in recent years.

Like certain coalition ministers, we were somewhat taken aback by the language of the speech. But mainly because the results of an opinion poll that the Refugee Council published on Monday showed that not only were two-thirds of British people sympathetic to refugees seeking safety in Britain, over 80 per cent said they believe helping vulnerable people is an intrinsic part of being British. This led us to question if the British people are really as hostile to new people coming into their communities as the government believes?

A particularly surprising response to our poll came from a BNP blog site which agreed that helping others is part of our British DNA and that this identity should be protected. While we can’t ignore the nationalist values behind this (!), we also found it strangely encouraging that despite the apparent level of anti-immigration sentiment David Cameron was so keen to emphasise last week that the majority of people in the UK are proud of our historical support for refugees in the UK.

With this year being the 60th anniversary of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, created in the aftermath of WWII to protect people whose lives were at risk in their own countries, the positive support for people seeking safety in our country today is something to be celebrated. But the results again brought us to question the government’s stance on immigration – policies that shape the lives of refugees settling in the UK, as well as people coming here for financial or work reasons.

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The Prime Minister’s speech has only added to the stigma faced by migrants who come to the UK. Take his call for “good immigration, not mass immigration” as one example. Further findings of our poll showed that any negative attitudes among British people towards refugees were based on misunderstandings and confusion – a number of people still confuse refugees with economic migrants from countries in eastern European including Poland, rather than people who have fled persecution and conflict in countries where human rights abuses are rife. Cameron’s speech no doubt added fuel to the public fire against economic migrants, further hindering the integration of refugees wanting to contribute to society.

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Coincidentally, Cameron also slammed immigrants who often do not want to learn English or integrate. But his calls were completely undermined by his swingeing cuts to funding for ESOL classes, and cuts to integration services for refugees, meaning that many of these people will be prevented from contributing to their communities, and further isolated from mainstream society. We know from our experience how important it is for refugees, and migrants too, to learn English in order to play a full part in UK life, and it is a travesty that many will now face additional barriers to doing so.

But what is clear is that the results of our poll have shown us the government must do more to tap into the sentiment of the country, rather than basing its policies and ambitions on the fears and stigma stirred up by the right during last year’s election. If the British people believe protecting the vulnerable is a core British value, as our poll suggests, the government would do better to focus on ensuring there is enough support for people when they do arrive here – either to speak English, to integrate, or at the very least, to live in dignity.

They must spend less time defensively stressing the numbers they are preventing from coming here, and explaining at length how they are eradicating abuse of the system. Instead they should focus on supporting those settling in the UK, so that the apparent “discomfort” and “disjointedness” of the integration experience is eliminated for all involved once and for all.

Donna Covey is chief executive of the Refugee Council