COVID-19 and Public Opinion on Immigration

By Harry Sanders, Immigration Advisory Service

Prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Britain’s relationship with the concept of immigration was one fraught with jingoism and xenophobia. Now, ironically, after half a decade of constitutional tirades regarding the right of immigrants to live within our borders, we as a country have found ourselves (as we always were) indebted to the hard work and continued service of those who come to the UK – from the NHS to the fields and everywhere in-between. Simultaneously, however, we are also experiencing a spike in racial hostility with some trying to implicate immigrants as the cause of coronavirus’ spread throughout the country. As the current crisis progresses, is it possible that age-old stereotypes and intolerance may finally be reversed?

Any such reversal would be a major surprise to anyone living in the UK even a few months ago; for years public opinion on immigration has been decidedly negative, with 77% of respondents to a 2013 survey favouring a reduction in the number of people entering the country. Although this figure has been falling steadily – a 2019 survey found 44% seeking a reduction and 39% wishing for no change – there has clearly been a firm opposition to immigration embedded deep into British society.

Furthermore, while nowadays Europe and the EU are most often cited as the country’s ‘most important issue’, it is true that for many their fears of the EU stem from their distrust of its immigration policies. A 2015 report found that 58% believed there should be greater restrictions on the free movement of EU citizens, with 72% of this group citing strain on public services as justification for their response (other concerns mentioned were the abuse of benefits and overcrowding). This has been largely embodied by the Brexit debate, but nearly half a decade on from the 2016 referendum attitudes are changing and fatigue with out-of-touch immigration policy is beginning to set in. Emma Harrison, chief executive of migrant advocacy organisation iMix, has rightly pointed out the widening gulf “between public rhetoric and what people actually see happening in their communities”.

It is precisely thanks to what is actually happening in communities across the country that once cold attitudes towards immigrants are starting to warm. Every day, migrant workers are going to work as normal in our hospitals and doing all they can to save British lives – the only difference between this and the past is that their vital work is being recognised on national television. The biggest boost to this cause came from the Prime Minister during his recovery from COVID-19, in which he publicly thanked the migrant nurses – “Jenny from New Zealand… and Luis from Portugal” – who treated him in April. Recent polling has found a staggering surge in support for immigration; 77% agreed that EU nationals currently working in the health sector should be granted automatic British citizenship – a sentiment that would likely have been widely derided only a matter of years ago. Similarly, menial jobs which are usually seen as low-skilled, and more importantly the immigrants which staff these positions, have been proven to be fundamental to the health of the country. Even among leave voters, support for the offer of automatic citizenship to migrant agricultural workers was a surprisingly moderate 40%.

In spite of all this positivity, there are still those who hold that immigration is bad for the country. Anyone who has ventured out for an essential journey throughout lockdown will have noticed the relative distrust between themselves and passers-by, and for some this is amplified in their impressions of immigrants. Fear of strangers is perhaps a natural and impulsive response to the current situation, but that does not justify the degree of xenophobia that has been on show in some parts of the country. Racist messages printed onto stickers have been found in several cities including Sheffield, York, Leeds and Hull, spread by a far-right group known as the ‘Hundred-Handers’.

Chinese communities have also come under heavy fire during the course of the pandemic. There are certainly questions to be asked of the Chinese government’s initial response to the COVID-19 outbreak, but it is not the duty of Chinese nationals living in the UK to receive abuse and violence on its behalf. Some Chinese workers in the UK have even reported having to adjust work hours to off-peak times in order to “self-quarantine… [from] this negative and hostile environment”. Attacks on Chinese communities have been condemned by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, though as is often the case such words fall on deaf ears and verbal and physical abuses are still being perpetrated.

The COVID-19 appears to have presented to us as a nation a crossroads with two paths: down one path lies the stereotypes and xenophobia of the past, the attacks on migrants and the jingoism of the Brexit debate, and a bleak, miserable Britain afraid and scornful of the world that lies across its shores; down the other path, neighbours, friends and families have rekindled a strong sense of community between native Britons and newcomers from across the world, and the doctors and nurses who are laying down their lives to protect us from a pandemic are welcomed with open arms into a multicultural nation. A vision of this second path can be seen in the acts of kindness and warmth that many of us are showing to each other in these incredibly dark times, and it is easily within reach so long as we do not regress into the barbarism of our former years. We must seize opportunity for us all to be better to ourselves and to each other before it slips from our reach, and we are subjected to more of Nigel Farage’s antics.

Harry Sanders is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors.