(Source: Raoul Walawalker*, Immigration Advice Service)
While immigration was once one of the most heavily covered issues in the media for over a decade, the subject now seems of significantly less concern to both the media and the public.
The topic was not only notable for its absence from a list of the public’s ten ‘biggest concerns’ in the June 2020 Ipsos Mori’s Issues Index – after having been there for years – but the poll also showed that public concern over immigration had fallen to its lowest level since December 1999, scoring just 5 percent, compared to 56 percent in June 2016.
In June, the issue of highest concern was the Covid-19 pandemic, scoring 72 percent. The next largest issues of worry were the economy and Brexit, followed by a huge rise in concern over race relations to 24 percent (ten times the level in April). After coronavirus, it was the second biggest issue of concern for BAME participants.
Increased concern over ‘race relations’ (now polled separately to immigration) could be seen as reflecting the killing of George Floyd in May and the subsequent BLM protests.
While not highlighted in the report, the issue could also be linked to the coverage of the disproportionately high number of BAME deaths from Covid-19, and how systemic racism has been assessed as a part of the cause.
As you might expect, there tends to be correlation between issues of ‘greatest public concern’ and issues being most heavily covered by the media. The spikes in all four major concern issues above reflect this.
But immigration has now been an issue of decreasing concern generally for about four years now, falling more sharply since the pandemic.
Peaks of public concern over immigration, like in June 2015 or 2016, coincided with prolonged periods of heavy, negative media coverage.
Before the 2016 Brexit vote for example, the UK’s right-wing press (the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, The Sun, Daily Express) earned it a UNHCR designation as Europe’s most ‘polarised, negative and uniquely aggressive’ anti-migrant media.
Clearly there have been events since June 2016 that would have reduced the concerns of anti-migrant media. Hostility to immigration was a pillar of the Brexit campaign, so the 2016 victory of the ‘Leave’ vote, promising regained control of borders, the landslide Conservative election victory of December promising an Australian-style, points-based immigration system, and official departure from the EU on 31 January, have all made the topic less of a ‘concern’ to those most hostile to migration.
It’s also worth considering that two of the most ardently anti-EU and anti-migrant newspapers (Daily Mail and Daily Express) have had new editors since 2018 whose views and levels of hostility towards immigration are known to differ markedly from their predecessors.
But now faced with the Covid-19 pandemic, the most typically anti-migrant newspapers have also been posed with significant dilemmas: e.g. how to remain ideologically opposed to low-paid immigration amid awareness that numerous low-paid migrant key workers are currently involved in saving British lives at risk to their own?
Or how, in such a time of crisis, to remain non-critical of policies in place (tracing back to the 2010 ‘hostile environment policy’) whose specific aim is to hamper and harm the lives of immigrants – such as the Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS), the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) policy, or the frozen budget and barely-possible living conditions of asylum seekers?
Since the pandemic, the pushback against the least palatable aspects of the government’s immigration policy hasn’t been restricted to left-wing press or campaigners either. The immigration health surcharge was finally dropped on nursing and care workers on 21 May after Conservative MPs and right-wing papers supported the campaigning over its unfairness.
The more familiarly anti-migrant press has also at times been opting for sympathetic coverage and moral stances on related issues, too.
In late July, the Daily Express ran a commentary by Children’s Society Director Mark Russell calling for the scraping of the NRPF policy that causes destitution by denying all benefits of any kind to thousands of migrants, including school meals for their kids.
After a violent incident in Glasgow in late June, the Daily Mail assessed how prolonged, psychologically torturous living conditions could well be the reason why asylum seekers (probably with PTSD) might suddenly behave unstably – essentially criticising asylum policy and support.
And rather than cheering the new Immigration Bill set to be implemented in January, media across the spectrum has highlighted how a system designed to block entry of all low-paid migrant workers, including care workers, regardless of chronic staff shortages, might currently be a bad idea.
*Raoul Walawalker is a feature writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of UK and Ireland immigration lawyers that is currently offering free legal advice to all NHS staff amid the coronavirus pandemic.