Will COVID-19 Permanently Change Perceptions of Immigration?

Will COVID-19 Permanently Change Perceptions of Immigration? by Cameron Boyle

When Prime Minister of the UK, Boris Johnson was discharged from hospital in London following COVID-19 treatment recently, he was quick to heap praise on two migrant nurses – ‘Jenny from New Zealand … and Luis from Portugal’- who remained by his bedside for 48 hours.

It was impossible not to see the immense irony in this – one of the architects of Brexit (as the UK campaign to leave the European Union was commonly referred to), a man who has repeatedly stressed the supposed harm that migrants cause the UK, was heralding the benefits of immigration to the nation.

Yet in England in particular, the COVID-19 period has been characterised by this ironic shift in discourse. As overseas nationals have formed such an indispensable part of the fight against the virus, there has been a tangible uptick in the public’s appreciation of how migrants can benefit society. 

Recent polling has encapsulated this growing sense of gratitude. In order to gauge how the national mood has changed in light of the crisis, British Future asked members of the British public whether they agreed that EU citizens working as doctors and nurses during the pandemic should be offered automatic British citizenship. 77% of respondents said they agreed.

Even more tellingly, a majority (62%) of the public also supported offering automatic citizenship to care workers who have been on the pandemic’s frontline, with half of respondents wanting the same for supermarket and agricultural workers. The figures stand in stark contrast to British Future polling from June 2018, in which 48% of those surveyed advocated a reduction in ‘low-skilled workers from the EU’.

With the latter three occupations deemed ‘low-skilled’, and therefore undesirable, this data is hugely pertinent. It illuminates the fact that, in a matter of months, those who were unwanted by much of the British public have become classed as essential.

What the struggle against COVID-19 appears to have highlighted is that, despite a fixation with skill level and salary at both public and policy level in England, migrants of all backgrounds contribute towards the healthy functioning of society. In a life or death situation, previous prejudices seem to be quickly and conveniently forgotten.

This shift in the public mood has been accompanied – and almost certainly nurtured – by a change in the tone of the media when discussing immigration. Mainstream publications and broadcasters in England are traditionally and notably hostile in their coverage of the issue – the Daily Mail, for example, published 122 anti-migrant headlines in a five-year period. Yet that very same newspaper- despite its well-known penchant for xenophobia- recently published the headline ‘Romanians To The Rescue’, proclaiming the heroism of the eastern European fruit-pickers flown in to save the harvest.

Due to the inextricable link between media commentary and public opinion, it is difficult not to see such coverage as a factor in the recent positivity towards migrants. The pandemic appears to have changed the narrative on immigration; where once it was ‘us versus them’, now it is ‘we’re all in this together’.

However, attitudes to immigration are deeply nuanced, and this particular situation is nowhere near as clear-cut as it first appears. In fact, taking a wider look at data trends reveals that attitudes towards immigration have been softening for some time.

In a 2012 Ipsos MORI survey conducted across Britain, 70% of respondents agreed with the statement ‘there are too many immigrants in Britain’. By 2017, this percentage had decreased to just 45%. A further way to gauge attitudes to immigration is to measure its salience as a political issue. In September 2015, 56% of the public stated that immigration was ‘the most important issue facing the Britain’. By November 2019, this figure had fallen to just 13%.

It is necessary to understand the reasons for this diachronic shift. Ipsos MORI asked those who had become more positive about immigration why their attitudes had changed- the most common answer was that the national debate on immigration had ‘highlighted how much immigrants contribute to the UK’.

Taking this into account, the recent appreciation of migrants and their contribution is far from an aberration. Since the EU referendum, which resulted in the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, there has been a notable softening of attitudes towards immigration; although this is partly due to a reassurance that ‘fewer immigrants will come to the UK’ post-Brexit.

Having said this, COVID-19 does seem to have- temporarily, at least- reversed some of the harmful stereotypes surrounding immigration. One such stereotype is that migrants place ‘too much pressure on public services’, a statement supported by 76% of respondents in a 2011 survey. As our response to the pandemic has shown, the opposite is true – vital public services would simply not function were it not for the work of migrants.

With 28.4% of NHS doctors in England hailing from overseas, it is impossible to doubt the pivotal role they have played in the crisis. Rather than taking from the country without giving anything back, many migrants have made the ultimate sacrifice on the frontline of public service. The first ten NHS doctors to die from COVID-19 were all overseas nationals.

A further myth that is being debunked is the idea that only those deemed ‘skilled’ are of worth to the UK. As touched upon, around half of the public currently favour offering citizenship to supermarket workers (50%) and delivery drivers (47%) due to their invaluable work in recent weeks. These figures represent a sea change from preceding data, which shows a consistent opposition to low-skilled workers.

It is important to note that, whilst COVID-19 has led to a more positive discussion of immigration, various right-wing nationalist groups have used the pandemic as a way to stir up anti-immigrant sentiment. For example, stickers have been found in various parts of England displaying the slogan ‘they could have prevented this’, accompanied by an image of Coronavirus passing across an open border. With leaders in other parts of the world actively blaming the pandemic on immigrants, the presence of this material should prompt serious concern.

Taking this into account, it is hugely difficult to say how, or if, the pandemic will have a lasting impact on attitudes to immigration. Although it has highlighted the contribution that migrants make, public opinion is notably fickle, and this sense of appreciation could quickly deteriorate were the narrative to revert to type. Now we must work to prevent this, and ensure that migrants continue to be celebrated.

Cameron Boyle is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors.

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