Immigration: What Do We Get Wrong?

Britain’s vote to leave the EU inflamed the global debate about immigration and refugees. The aftermath of Brexit saw an outburst of anti-immigration sentiment, with reports of hate crime in the UK increasing 57%.

This fear, and often hatred, of immigrants is not unique to the UK. In Australia violence has broken out between anti-immigration and anti-racism protesters and in the US, Austria, and a number of other countries, anti-immigration rhetoric has propelled political leaders and parties.

However, research shows that many of the reasons cited by opponents to immigration are often misguided.

Leading UK researcher Bobby Duffy discovered that when it comes to immigration - we often get our facts wrong.

His studies show that immigration numbers are half of what people believe they actually are, and that our public perception of immigrants as mainly refugees and asylum seekers is incorrect - it's actually a small percentage of immigrants.

"It's quite common that people think immigration is double the scale that it actually is," Mr Duffy said.

"That's not just a British phenomenon, you see the same thing in most developed Western countries, and lots of other countries too as people overestimate the proportions of the population that they make up."

Other mis-perceptions include the kind of immigrants that make up the population - it's not all refugees and asylum seekers.

"People think that is the most common, and the largest proportion of immigration, when actually it's the smallest, compared to people who immigrate for work or study or for family."

Yet another misunderstanding is what immigrants bring to an economy. Anti-immigration supports often cite job competition, but it's not the full picture.

"At some level, immigrants will increase job competition in the economy and in other parts of the economy they will be creating jobs," Mr Duffy said.

"The reality, from an economic perspective, is that immigration probably is a net benefit, almost certainly a net benefit to the economy at an aggregate level."

And fears that immigrants bring more crime? It turns out that's untrue too.

Dr Walter Ewing from the American Immigration Council says immigrants are actually less likely to be criminals than native-born citizens. He says criminal accusations of immigrants are sadly, not a new thing for America.

"Unfortunately, this is a hundred year old tendency to demonize and scape-goat immigrants for the nation’s problems,” Dr Ewing said.

“People were saying this about Italian immigrants when they first arrived, and then you find the exact same rhetoric being used about Mexican immigrants today."

"I actually went and looked at some of the speeches from the 1890's in Congress about the Italians coming in - the fear was that they were criminals, that they would never learn English, that they would steal our jobs…You could just substitute in Mexican or Salvadorian and it's the exact same rhetoric."

But changing people's views of immigration is not just about clearing up the facts, researchers warn it's a much more emotional, and local, response to that.

"It's much easier to demonize someone you've never talked to, or about whose lives you don't know. So I think it's just as important to spread the human side of the immigrant experience, as well as the facts and figures."

Hope may also lie with a younger generation.

“Looking to the future, it's a very different view among millennials, on average,” Mr Duffy said.

“We have half the levels of concern about immigration among millennials in Britain, twice the level of trust in the European Union, twice the likelihood to vote to remain in the European Union, it's just a much more open, and international, outlook among that generation."

"It seems from the data that we have a cohort coming through that will be, on balance, more open - less worried about diversity, less worried about the threats of diversity, than the current balance of the population."