Immigrants aren’t abstract numbers, they are people

Throughout this EU referendum campaign, it was becoming increasingly obvious that once they lost the economic argument,  the Leave campaign would use immigration as their trump card. Of course curbing immigration has always been UKIP’s pledge. 

UKIPs rise in British politics was driven largely by their anger at the government’s reluctance to toughen immigration policies which they see as the root of all evil.

But today it is difficult to tell the difference anymore between Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.

Curbing immigration is used as a catch all solution to the UK’s problems.

Its immigrants who move to Britain, live off welfare, take our jobs, burden our health services and send their children to our schools. In a nutshell, immigrants are stopping Britain from becoming great again and who doesn’t want Britain to be great?

This is a seductive but dangerous soundbite. UKIP, Johnson and Gove stand united in their condemnation of EU immigration and red tape. I prefer to use the words people and regulations.

Various studies show how EU migrants have a positive effect on the British economy including increasing productivity and pay of British workers themselves.

Survey upon survey shows that EU migrants come to the UK largely to work, not to claim benefits, and often find employment in more senior jobs than their British counterparts.

The UK has always been open to the brightest and the best and we should be proud of the fact that we are a country which continues to attract young and old who want to work or study here. It’s true that the free movement of people and trade and the increasing effects of globalisation create a more competitive environment.

But the problem is not the skills of the EU workers, its in our domestic skills deficit. We need to re-skill the domestic market rather than resent the skills of the European market.

Immigrants aren’t abstract numbers, they are people from diverse backgrounds who contribute to our society by doing jobs and by creating jobs.

Just as we can go to Europe to live and work with so much ease, Europeans can come here. Even if we went down the Brexit proposal of an Australian points based system, all the evidence points to an enormous amount of complex legal and political bureaucracy with no guarantee of any success that we are letting in the `right’ people with the `right’ skills.

As has been recently pointed out the area of fastest employment growth in the UK is care for the elderly – low skilled and low paid jobs that are often declined by younger Britons.

In the general noise around immigration, we are in danger of losing all sense of perspective.

For me personally the immigration debate has another nastier and more socially divisive side.

The fundamental question is who are the immigrants referred to by the Leave side? Simply EU migrants, Syrian refugees, asylum seekers or anyone who is just not like us? More importantly, who is the `us?’ While couched in economic terms, the immigration debate can play into peoples worst insecurities about nationhood and self confidence.

The recent influx of refugees and asylum seekers from various parts of Asia and the Middle East, as well as the more affluent EU migrant are often conflated into one big problem. Add religion to the mix, and what you often find is that all kinds of fears bubble to the surface.

I don’t’ for one minute dismiss people’s genuine concerns about Europe’s Christian’s past and hope for her secular/Christian future. I am well aware that churches across Europe are configuring how to open their doors in hospitality to those who are destitute while sharing their concerns about the place of Islam in Europe.

These are legitimate concerns for us all and merit serious and measured discussion. The EU has been divided over how to deal with this issue but its not too late to meet this challenge creatively- it’s a global crisis of people’s lives which we in Britain are morally bound to address, not run away from.

We are deluding ourselves that we can 'close borders' and keep people from coming here. Europe is great because it is a continent which brought down walls, not built them again.

We can’t leave the EU because it’s not perfect. No society, country or union is. By their very nature, alliances are built on collaboration and compromise but these are not dirty words.

They are testament to nations coming together in solidarity and a level of humility.

The EU project is still worth fighting for because it speaks of something bigger than simply the vested interests of its member states.

The idea of becoming great by standing alone simply ignores the extent to which we are economically, socially and politically tied to the EU.

Leaving the EU would not make us free or great.

Written by Prof Mona Siddiqui
Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies at the University of Edinburgh
Member of Scotland Stronger IN Europe Advisory board