Perspectives on migrants distorted by politics of prejudice

One Nation senator Pauline Hanson wants a ban on further Muslim immigration to Australia. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Global migration is experiencing turbulent times.

There are 120 million immigrants living in OECD countries; Australia has one of the highest immigrant populations (28.1% in 2014) of all OECD countries.

Launching the International Migration Outlook 2016 at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Monday, OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría was worried that:

Too many people in too many countries are losing faith in how we manage migration, and the refugee crisis has exacerbated this.

Gurría warned about “the rising tide of anti-immigration voices” and urged OECD governments to develop more effective migration and integration policies.

A driver of political instability

The aftershocks of the immigration issue are reverberating strongly through Europe. Brexit, in part a response to UK public opposition to immigrants, threatens both the UK’s economic prosperity and the viability of the European Union.

European OECD countries are experiencing a refugee crisis of record proportions due to the Syrian crisis. Germany received more than 1 million refugees in 2015. In relative terms, Sweden received the most refugees, the equivalent of 1.6% of its population.

These immigration shocks have led to the re-erecting of borders that have been dormant for decades. This has serious political repercussions across Europe, where anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, right-wing parties are receiving increased support.

At the same time in the US – insulated from Europe’s refugee crisis – Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump promises to build a wall to stop Mexican immigration and to deport those already in the US illegally.

In Australia, One Nation senator Pauline Hanson wants a ban on further Muslim immigration. Meanwhile, the government’s controversial policy of turning back asylum-seeker boats and depositing boat people – including children – into detention on Manus Island and Nauru continues to be a key political issue on the national and international stage.

In the 12 months after the Abbott government said Australia would take in 12,000 refugees from the conflict in the Middle East, only 3,532 have been resettled. Canada settled 30,000 in four months. And yet many OECD nations now look to Australia as a model for migration and integration policies.

In some ways the controversy and turmoil associated with global migration are disproportionate to the fact that, as the International Migration Outlook report notes, new migrants moving to OECD countries represent less than 0.5% of their total population. Even in 2015 refugees were still a relatively small part of the estimated 4.8 million people who moved to OECD countries.

Attitudes to immigration

Clearly, public attitudes toward migration are a key driver of political instability and controversy across Europe and North America.

The most recent insights into attitudes to migration in Australia - the 2016 Scanlon Foundation report – concluded:

While the majority [of people] support current [immigration and multiculturalism] policy … the level of entrenched opposition … has grown, with a relatively high proportion (almost 20%) of the Australia-born considering that the least favourable aspect of life in Australia is the high level of immigration.

It is ironic that public opposition to immigration has been highest when immigration intake levels were the lowest – and vice versa.

Public support for immigration in Australia has increased considerably as immigration levels have risen. When immigration intakes in the early 1990s were the lowest since the post-war immigration program began (net overseas migration was 34,822 in 1993), between two-thirds and three-quarters of Australians surveyed in the years 1990 to 1995 reported that they thought immigration was “too high”.

Curiously, as immigration levels rose, so did public support. Net overseas migration peaked in 2008 at 315,700. While it subsequently fell to 177,100 in 2015, temporary migration has risen spectacularly to annual intakes of more than 700,000. This gives an annual migration intake today of just under 1 million people.

Yet, by 2015, 60% thought that immigration intake levels were “just right”. This is a doubling of support over the past two decades.

Public opposition to particular cohorts of immigrants is a different matter. In 1981 Macquarie University political scientist Murray Goot reported that 48% of Australians thought too many Asians were arriving in Australia.

Attitudes to immigrants from Vietnam and China have since softened dramatically, though attitudes to those from Iraq and Lebanon are much more negative. One recent study found one in ten Australians are “highly Islamophobic” and have a fear or dread of Muslims.

It is from this well of anti-Muslim sentiment that Hanson and her equivalents in Europe and North America draw their politics of prejudice.

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