Whether you like it or not, immigration is a wedge issue in modern politics. For as long as I’ve been alive and almost certainly longer, elections in the western world have been won and lost over immigration, and that shows little sign of changing any time soon. Now, I could go into more depth about why I think it has become such an important issue in politics today, but at least on this occasion I’d rather talk about the issue face on rather than philosophise around it.
This week’s column was partly inspired by a couple of posts on Facebook by a good friend of mine focused around immigrants from India and Pakistan here in Cyprus, which in short said that there are loads of them, and that we would be better off as a country if there were less of them here. Even in that single sentence, there’s a lot to unpack. So much so, that I think there’s a whole column’s worth to write about this week.
First of all, I have absolutely no idea how many immigrants from India and Pakistan there are in Cyprus. However, neither does the Cypriot government. In my opinion, however, immigration as an issue is not an issue of statistics, but rather an issue of perception and assimilation. In general, immigration is more than a social issue than a financial one, with the existence of immigrants impacting the mood of a population more than their finances in most cases. In addition to this, in any case, people’s feelings and sentiments are more affected by their perception of reality than solid facts.
That brings me onto the part where I’m going to disagree in part with my friend. It is, in fact, not necessarily true that countries with stricter immigration policies perform better economically. After the Second World War (“Glap 2″ for regular readers of my column), countries such as France and Germany experienced incredible economic growth while having what were effectively open-door immigration policies, with previously unseen numbers of immigrants arriving in those two countries from places such as Turkey and the Maghreb.
“To say racism and only racism is the cause of people feeling uncomfortable around immigrants is lazy”
However, as I’ve already said, immigration is an issue of sentiment rather than statistics. People become opposed to immigration if they feel uncomfortable in the presence of immigrants, and people feel uncomfortable in the presence of immigrants when they don’t feel like the immigrants are a part of their “us”. Now, there are multiple reasons why someone may feel this way, and one of those is racism, but to say that racism and only racism is the cause of people feeling uncomfortable around immigrants is lazy and will not solve anything.
The biggest difference-maker, in my opinion, is assimilation. Immigrants who speak the local language and interact with the local society are far more likely to be accepted into it. If we contrast, for example, the state of Indians in Cyprus with the state of Indians in the United Kingdom (which is in many ways hardly a beacon of pro-immigration sentiment at the moment), you can see what I mean. Indians in the United Kingdom hold respectable jobs; they’re doctors, dentists, accountants, and similar well respected-professions. They interact with the native population at every level and have found a place in society. Indians in Cyprus, however, are mostly young men who loiter in large groups in public spaces, spending their time eyeing up passing young women or getting into fights with each other. Of course there are exceptions on both sides, but these are the impressions that people get.
“Companies bring workers over from less developed countries and pay them barely anything”
Why does this dichotomy exist, therefore? The answer lies, mostly, with the government, and the problem is two-fold. Firstly, Cyprus’ laws are not geared towards high-skilled immigration, but rather the lack of effective minimum wage means that companies can decide to bring workers over from countries less developed than ours, and pay them barely anything. This means that the majority of the immigrants into this country are poorly educated and not equipped to assimilate into a new society, especially those from countries such as India.
Secondly, the government also gives them no help in assimilating here. As far as I’m aware there are no social programs, no government initiatives, and no effort being put into helping these people assimilate into our society while they’re here. The government language courses that exist are incredibly poorly advertised too. For that reason, these people have quite simply got nothing better to do than loiter in our public areas, because nothing is being provided for them to integrate into our society.
“Although I’d like it if they were less antisocial, I can’t blame them for the situation at large”
In fewer words, therefore, Cyprus’ immigration problem is that it is attractive almost uniquely to low quality immigrants, and does nothing to help them once they get here. Although I’d like it if these people themselves were (in general) a bit less antisocial, I can’t blame them for the situation at large that has been created here, and even their antisocial behaviour could have easily been knocked on the head by a few social programs that would have given them a feeling of belonging here. The policies of the government of Cyprus mean that the door is wide open only to “low quality” immigrants, the type who are least likely to assimilate, and most likely to engage in antisocial behaviour of the sort I’ve described. They also mean that once these immigrants get here, they’re on their own, which has led to the problems with them that exist.
Overall, therefore, to “tackle” immigration we need to look at sentiment rather than numbers, because that is where the true sources of any problems lie. Assimilation of new immigrants is far from a lofty ambition for a competent government, and in my opinion would immensely help the situation which exists here in Cyprus.