Politics

Most Brits think politicians use refugees to stoke 'culture wars', study finds

Nigel Farage has called this the 'immigration election', but two-thirds of Brits think refugees are just used to stoke division

Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak stand side by side during the first election debate on ITV

Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak went head-to-head in the first election debate on ITV on Tuesday 4th June. Image: ITV

As Labour, the Conservatives and Reform UK compete to see who can shout “stop the boats” the loudest, new research suggests voters don’t actually want to hear it.

Nigel Farage’s announcement on Monday (3 June) that he will stand for parliament as a Reform candidate suggests immigration is going to be front and centre in the month leading up to 4 July. But despite the increasing hardline rhetoric – and legislation – around the issue in recent years, almost two-thirds (63%) of Brits think politicians use refugees as a weapon to stoke the ‘culture wars’.

That’s according to a study by research and strategy agency Eden Stanley, which surveyed 3,000 UK back adults in April. The majority of people who responded (52%) also said they feel sympathetic towards refugees, up from 46% in 2017. And one in five (21%) said the UK should be taking in more refugees than it does.

Farage, who has failed seven times to win a seat in parliament, knows hot to get the two major parties and the political media dancing to his tune and has labelled this the “immigration election”. That seems at odds with what the public thinks, according to a YouGov poll last week that found the top two issues on the minds of voters ahead of the election are the cost of living crisis and health, with immigration fourth.

Keir Starmer has also been keen to look tough on immigration. He sparked controversy by saying last year’s “sky-high” 685,000 net migration figure has “got to come down” and has also angered human rights groups and migrant charities by saying he would, if elected, fund a new ‘Border Security Command’. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants said ’deterrent’ tactics have never worked and the way to stop the boats is to create safe routes.

Rishi Sunak, meanwhile, has promised flights sending asylum seekers to Rwanda will take off within days if the Tories win the election.

Josephine Whitaker-Yilmaz, policy and public affairs manager at migrant support charity Praxis, told the Big Issue that the polls’ results show the public can see through politicians’ ”smoke and mirrors”.

“For far too long politicians have scapegoated people on the move in a tired attempt to hide their failures on the issues that really matter: whether we can pay our bills at the end of the month, or get to see a GP when we’re ill,” she said.

“Instead of dreaming up cruel policies targeting people who move, political leaders should recognise the humanity that we all share – whether we are British or not – and get on with addressing the issues that really matter to our lives.”

The government has taken an increasingly hardline stance on migration in recent years, particularly asylum seekers.

In November, the Big Issue revealed the number of refugees becoming homeless upon leaving asylum accommodation has tripled after controversial changes to Home Office policy, which gave people less notice of their eviction. Our coverage sparked a major backlash and the government eventually reversed the changes, claiming they were only ever temporary.

This followed a decision to house asylum seekers on the Bibby Stockholm barge in Dorset, a move labelled “inhumane” by charity Freedom From Torture. In March a man who had been put on the barge gave a sobering interview to the Big Issue in which he described people on the barge finding out about a suspected suicide on board via news articles.

Some 22% of people who took part in the poll said they are not sympathetic towards refugees at all, a figure that has gone down since 2017.

Joe Barrell, Eden Stanley founder, said: “While the government may have hardened its stance on refugees, our research reveals a shift in public sentiment.

“More than half of the UK population now expresses empathy towards refugees, a significant increase from 2017.  It’s clear that the public’s support is growing, not diminishing, even in the context of the highly polarised political debate on the topic.”

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