Why Britain is so fearful of immigrants

Britain is more concerned about immigration than any other country polled for the Ipsos Mori study “What Worries the World.” Among people surveyed in the UK, 42% think that immigration control is the most concerning issue, followed by healthcare (34%) and terrorism (31%). The other 25 countries together worry mostly about unemployment (38%), corruption (33%), poverty and social inequality (33%).

When it comes to immigration, the UK is followed by Germany (41%), Sweden (33%) and Italy (32%). Unlike the UK, however, these countries have been at the forefront of the refugee crisis. Italy is a door to Europe and rescues thousands of people in the Mediterranean each week. Sweden and Germany are the EU countries that welcomed the highest number of refugees per person. They also receive significant number of EU migrants. In 2014, the figure on a per capita basis was higher than the UK, according to Eurostat.

So why is Britain so fearful of immigrants? Dr Barbara Gibson, global business consultant and lecturer in intercultural business communications at Birkbeck College, University of London, says this may be because the UK, its government and media are “interculturally incompetent.”

What does it mean?

People react to cultural differences in many ways. Dr Milton Bennett explains intercultural sensitivity on a scale of six steps. On one side, there are individuals who believe that their culture is central to the reality perceived by others. This is the “ethnocentric” approach and involves three stages: denial, which considers one’s culture as the only real culture; defence, which is against anything different; and minimization, which tends to deny differences from a place of privilege. On the other side, there are people who perceive other cultures as more equal. This attitude is “ethnorelative” and involves the stages of acceptance, adaptation and integration.

The UK collectively is probably in the stage of minimisation. Everyone seems to be fine and tolerance is considered a core value of the country. But if you think about it closely, tolerance is not acceptance. It means ‘we are superior and we let you live here as long as we have control.’ From here, it is also really easy to fall back into defence, especially when the media and politicians feed you with fear.

Do you refer to specific examples or to media across the board?

The media play a crucial role because they want attention and what gets attention is conflict. So even though there are differences between the BBC and the Express, during the EU referendum campaign they all have driven a narrative of conflict, which inflates fear and creates the feeling of ‘us against them’.

Does this explain the level of concern emerged from the Ipsos Mori poll?

We have lower immigration rates than other countries, so it is clear that fear has been hyped up. And I don’t believe that concern existed at this level even a year ago. Now many people talk about racism, but I don’t think it is the right word. It’s more about ethnocentricity, that is thinking one’s culture (rather than race) as superior. It is an important difference.

Are there consequences of this ‘incompetence’ for businesses?

Yes, because if you are to be a global player, you need to understand different cultures and have intercultural competencies. Probably these competencies also apply to a country that aims to advance its own goals on an international level, whether for trade or for political negotiations.

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Photo by Francesco Malavota © Frontex, 2015 / Source: EC – Audiovisual Service.