UK policy and political debate on immigration and asylum seekers has been increasingly driven by abstract, quantitative descriptors. What we need instead are stories and images of individuals in order to trigger empathy and concern, argues Christina Boswell.
The body of a small boy, 3-year old Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a beach near the Turkish resort of Bodrum. This was the tragic image that captured mass media attention, and galvanised responses from a number of EU leaders including David Cameron.
The incident drives home the potency of such images in motivating sympathy. Psychology studies have shown that identifiable victims are much more likely to trigger altruistic responses than abstract information or statistics. We’ve seen this effect before. During the NATO operation in Iraq, it wasn’t statistics of casualties that triggered outrage so much as images of children injured by the bombing. Charities have long recognised this, basing campaigns on pictures of and stories about individuals – usually children – rather than anonymous facts and figures.
This image seemed all the more powerful given how number-centric the UK debate on immigration has become. UK policy and political debate on immigration has been increasingly driven by abstract, quantitative descriptors. The pattern was started under the Labour government, with its penchant for quantified targets. Asylum was not exempt from this: Labour set several targets on asylum processing and removals. Notoriously, Tony Blair even personally set a target of halving asylum applications in 2003, when annual applications were hovering around 100,000.
The net migration target – the Conservative Party pledge to reduce net migration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands – takes this quantification of goals to a new level. Labour targets applied to specific categories or outcomes. The net migration target blurs any distinction between different categories of immigrants, or their reasons for moving, or the type of impact they might have on UK society.
The target has been widely criticised as distorting policy priorities, damaging business interests and as impossible to deliver. But such quantitative goals tend to have particular traction. They are simple, clear, easily understood and communicable. And while they may be questioned by their detractors, they can have a number of subtle but significant effects on the way we frame immigration issues. I want to focus on two such effects of the current net migration target.
First, the net migration has reframed the debate on immigration by setting up a single category (migrants), and subjecting it to a binary ascription: more is bad, less is good. Not only does this obscure any consideration of the social or economic impacts of immigration, or how these are spread across different parts of the UK. It also normalises the idea that immigration policy is essentially about population control. And while the government, to its credit, has made numerous attempts to distinguish between different categories of immigrants – high skilled workers and ‘genuine’ foreign students have been singled out as beneficial to the UK economy – it is difficult to sustain such nuances while remaining committed to a headline numerical target. Thus it’s not surprising that the government has been reluctant to accept a greater number of Syrian refugees. It would directly undermine its work towards achieving the target.
The second effect is the issue linkage that has been forged between immigration and EU membership. The UK’s EU membership is now commonly perceived as the main impediment to meeting the net migration target. It’s seen as the bit we can’t control. In fact, pretty much all of the current 300,000 or so net migration is ‘the bit we can’t control’ – that is, if we want to support business, higher education, and meet basic human rights and humanitarian commitments. All liberal democratic immigration countries struggle to reconcile these ‘liberal constraints’ with generally anti-immigration public opinion.
But the notion that the EU would foist thousands more refugees on the UK is seen as the final straw. In fact, taking an additional 10,000 or 20,000 refugees would hardly be a stretch for the UK, which currently receives around 25,000 applicants a year – down from 100,000 or so a decade ago. And of course this is just a fraction of Germany’s projected intake of 800,000 this year. But again, given the fixation with minimising inflows – and the fact that this quota emanates from the EU – the request appears especially unpalatable. As recently as May 2015, the government made a renewed commitment to the net migration target, with Cameron personally heading up a task force to push for its implementation. And given nervousness about Eurosceptic backbenchers and a feared Brexit, government reticence about taking more refugees is hardly surprising.
So what are the prospects for the government being swayed on this matter? Media images certainly appear to be having some effect, and are prompting urgent appeals from various political and non-governmental groups. So too do arguments harking back to Europe’s response to refugee flows from Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, which also play well with many in the Conservative Party. Both arguments appeal to personal sympathy, as well as notions of a historical legacy of extending humanity and refuge.
By contrast, framing the question in terms of quantitative goals has had an unreservedly negative effect. The distinction between labour migrants, students, family migrants and asylum seekers has been obscured, and their impact has been compressed by a logic of reducing population growth. Moreover, the treatment of each migrant as an equivalent, quantifiable unit has served to abstract from the particularities of individual cases. Such quantitative descriptions bracket off those very features that might trigger empathy or concern.
So let’s have more of the pictures and stories, more of the emotive historical comparisons. And please, less of the statistics and quantitative targets.
Note: This article was originally published on the PSA’s Insight blog. Featured image credit: Takver CC BY-NC-ND
Christina Boswell is Professor of Politics at the University of Edinburgh. She tweets @BoswellPol.
It’s been about one month since this article was posted, so this reply is an update from the original message as to the “images” in the immigration debate. Since then, there have been more migrant deaths, but no more such “images” on-line.
Alternatively, there have been multiple disturbing “images” closer to home of migrants breaking into the Channel Tunnel, throwing stones at police officers, and causing delays at British train stations.
Or how about the “image” of the German government making initial estimates of 800,000 migrants to arrive in 2015, but then a secret document reveals an estimate of 1.5 million. The lack of candor by any government is quite disturbing.
Another “image” is that of clashes and brawls amongst various migrant groups for whatever reason there may be, and in which the police are called upon to break up these fights. So the question becomes, if these people are fighting amongst each other now that they just arrived and want to make a good impression to the German public and German politicians, what kind and how many fights will they have directly with the German population once they become actual legal residents of Germany and no longer need to make a good impression?
Another “image” is that of migrants suing Berlin’s largest registration center so they can receive social benefits quicker. I can’t imagine that that is a good use of the taxpayer funded judiciary.
Another “image” is when some migrants are interviewed as to why they want to come to Germany, instead of the prior “safe” nations that they passed through to arrive in Germany. Evidently, the interviewees were well-trained by the human-traffickers on asylum law by them stating that they did not feel safe in Turkey, or in Greece, or Serbia, or Hungary, or Croatia, or Austria. I personally have visited several of these so-called “unsafe” countries and I find them to be quite nice. (I actually find the Greek islands to be beautiful, so I am surprised to hear that they are “unsafe”). These assertions are obviously absurd, yet it falls on deaf ears/blind eyes by a certain few in power.
Additionally, there have been “images” of private property being seized for the use of migrants in Germany (it is not relevant that these properties are vacant, the fact is that it is privately owned). This leads to the slippery-slope of what other private property will be next to be seized for migrants. Perhaps seizing under-utilized private land? Or maybe using any spare rooms in people’s homes to house migrants? Or what about empty office space within a working business? Or how about the castles and palaces that are empty at night time? Although those examples are mere conjecture, what is actually presently happening is that some German towns are even evicting current tenants in public-housing so they can house migrants. (see: http://www.dw.com/en/in-mechernich-humanitarian-need-or-civic-overreach/a-18789725 ). I don’t want to sound like a “doubting Thomas” but I truly doubt that that will go over well.
However, the most disturbing “image” was a statement made by Chancellor Angela Merkel in which she stated that “…Rules and instructions are not as important right now…”.. (see: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34173091 ). The implied message of her statement is that the rule of man/woman supersedes the rule of law; this position goes counter to a democratic system and more-so echoes that of dictatorship.
We will see what happens in the next 30 days or so.
Your second posting here is openly anti-immigrant, choosing to focus on some problematic incidents, as well as manufacturing scare tactics — such as suggesting that spare rooms in people’s homes could be used to house migrants. There is a perfectly legitimate use of unutilised (wasted, probably speculative investment) private property for emergency public use. Presumably, you have no problem with the rich taking up valuable resources merely to get richer, while others cannot afford anywhere to live.
As for Merkel’s comments that humanitarianism currently takes priority over rules, this is a massive step forward for the German nation. I presume that the inhabitants of Nazi-occupied Jersey would not share her view.
All of us are either immigrants OR descendants of immigrants, so I cannot say that I am anti-myself or anti-my family (as both you and I are no doubt descendants of immigrants somewhere somehow in history). Moreover, we learned from ancient Greek philosophers that moderation is key in life, as too much of anything (food, wine, work, relaxation, etc…) is not good; this applies to migration as well, as such uncontrolled mass migration will disturb the cohesion that “exists” (or seeks to exist) in Europe. This mass migration is a very polarizing issue, that cannot be handled by merely forcing it upon people.
As for your assertion about a “step forward for the German nation”, are you stating that the rule of law should take a “back seat” to the whim/beliefs of the Chancellor in that they can act unilaterally without proper legislation?
I am amazed at how activist academics are these days. And how quick they are to override public opinion and to ignore the fact that New Labour’s mass immigration never had a democratic mandate. ‘Liberals’ really do look like the new authoritarians.
Your job is the search for objective truth not to peddle your own ideologies.
Basically she want to manipulate peoples for the sake of her ideology, how original, it was tried in the soviet union and it failled uterlly, I bet the same will happen with multiculturalism.
Failled methodes won’t work, no matter how many times you try.
Having recently read Mark Mazower’s, ‘The Dark Side of the Continent’ which addressed anti-semitic and immigration hostility in the years leading unto and during the Second World War, it is important that the EU should control the current influx in order to reduce the risk of the same kind of attitudes that are appearing. After all, if immigrants are sent to a country where they don’t want to be, the risks will be much greater than what happened in the 1930s and 1940s. Some of the Eastern European states may not be able to cope because they don’t have the infrastructure though they do probably need the workers due to EU internal economic migration to the UK, France and Germany. EU shouldn’t have allowed refugees to just travel across the continent but as they have, the EU will have to continue with their quota plan as the best plan behind the political and military resolution in Syria and the Middle East. However, if the war with the IS is going to depend then I suppose the quota system is to be implemented as soon as possible rather than later. The Middle East will have to accept more regardless of concerns over the numbers of their indigenous population (which will just provoke far right organisations in the West).
@Mary. Obviously you read a different book than that by Mazower published with the title “Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century”. I say this not only because you have given a completely different title (there is no “dark side” in the title) but also have taken away rather different conclusions than I did. I suspect that even Mazower would be surprised.
The fundamental issue in the dark continent is not the presence of minorites or immigrants: it is the existence of alternative ideological frameworks of politics. Mazower correctly points out fascism did not disappear from Europe after 1945, and communism as an ideologu did not end in 1989.
Nor do I accept in principle that the issue is the presence of immigrants and others, if we compare the current state of Europe with the 1930s. The primary issues are the state of the economy, the relative well-being of its poorer citizens, and the presence of politicians and a political ideology that looks for scapegoats to explain economic depression and hardship. All of these problems are now present: we do not need immigrants to implement them: look how the Germans chose to scapegoat the Greeks as the cause of the eurozone crisis.
So, I reject absolutely that there is any correlation between Europe’s humanitarian acceptance of refugees from war zones and right wing extremism. Nor do I accept your contention that the Middle East should host more refugees: they are already over-burdened with such, and the outspill is part of the current inflows into Europe. Admittiedly, the GCC countries (Saudi Arabia in particular) are not hosting refugees: that will not change, owing to their security concerns. The GCC countries have the explicit backing of the West, even in their appalling military attacks on civilians in Yemen. If anything, the refugee flows from the region will increase, at least partly owing to the irresponsible political and military support and/or interference of the UK, USA and most of the EU in the Middle East.
Rejecting a fact doesn’t make it wrong, Sweden took hundred of refugees for decades and now the SD is the second more popular party there, the same happened is Switzerland with the UDC, so no matter if you accept this as a fact or not it will happen with or without your approval.
Now talking about the GCC countries, it’s ironic that you accept there argument while not accepting those of westerners who don’t want any more immigration, your double standard thinking is very funny.
@Vae: I too consider it unwise that Sweden took so many refugees, even though this was a reflection of mainstream political culture. It would have been far better for all of Europe to take a small number of refigees, appropriate for the different characteristics of each country. This is what is needed urgently — not for one or two countries to shoulder the burden.
As for the GCC countries, I do not accept their argument. They are non-democratic countries with massive immigrant populations (averaging 4 immigrants to every citizen) and very serious religious divides (branches of Islam). At the moment, Saudi Arabia with Western support is bombing civilians in Yemen, and there will likely be another refugee exodus from there soon. The fact is that the neighbouring countries of Syria have absorbed the masses of refugees, but the living conditions are intolerable. They are leaving and coming to Europe — as is their right. We have a duty to help them — morally, from our interference in the region; legally, in terms of international humanitarian law; and politically, as a pragmatic management of the world’s biggest refugee crisis since 1945. Given the size of the EU population — 500 million — even a few million can be accepted with careful management. What cannot work is if they all go to Germany and Sweden — as you have already noted.
You are correct, images are very powerful. I’m sure everyone was emotionally touched by the photos of Alan (Aylan) Kurdi, which added an innocent human face to the tragedy, which only inspired others to help and to prevent any further such tragedies.
However, other recent images in Hungary are having the opposite effect, in which a small group of refugees/migrants caused disruptions at the Budapest train station, disobeyed police orders, and threw rocks at the police officers. Also, there are other recent disturbing “images” in which Europe’s laws (ex. Dublin Regulation) are being disregarded, and that European leaders/country leaders either selectively enforce the laws OR they be too weak to enforce them when they are faced with adversity. Moreover, another recent disturbing “image” is that people can just walk across borders unscathed and unchecked, as this exposes a security flaw/weakness to Europe’s enemies. All of these give the image that lawlessness and mob mentality prevail over the security forces and the written laws.
Hopefully there will be no more such incidents referenced above, but I fear there will be.
I agree very much, Christina.