James Dobson is author of ASI briefing paper “The Ties that Bind: Analyzing the relationship between social cohesion, diversity and immigration”.
Claims that immigrants are undermining the social fabric of the UK are largely unfounded. A new briefing paper from the Adam Smith Institute released today suggests that restricting net migration is likely to be counter-productive at improving social cohesion.
Opinion polling regularly shows that immigration is one of the most important issues for the electorate. The social impact of immigration is frequently cited as a reason to contain migration flows.
UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, recently claimed that immigration had divided communities to such an extent that parents were no longer willing to allow their children to play in the streets. He claimed that reducing immigration would return communities to places where people feel happy with their neighbours.
Concern over the social impact of immigrants is far from new. From Disraeli to Enoch Powell, politicians have regularly questioned whether immigrants damage British communities.
With such attention, it is unsurprising that the impact of immigration on social cohesion has been an area of interest for social scientists. In general, researchers use measures of trust, belonging, and participation to evaluate the cohesiveness of an area.
Researchers assume a cohesive society to be one where residents trust each other, feel that they belong to the community, and participate in voluntary organisations and civic society.
At a national level, there is little to indicate that immigration has an eroding effect on social cohesion. European countries with high levels of diversity are not more likely to demonstrate lower levels of cohesion. They are not less trusting, and research shows that they tend to have higher levels of membership and participation in voluntary groups. Research also shows that they contribute a larger amount of donations towards those groups.
There is also little evidence that immigration has a detrimental effect on social cohesion at a community level in the UK. Of the eight community level studies included in this review, four find that diversity has no effect on cohesion, two find it has both positive and negative effects, and two show it has negative effects.
Of the two that find that immigration has a negative effect, one finds only a slightly significant relationship and that study looked only at rural communities where it is possible that the relative rarity of immigrants leads to any negative effects being exaggerated.
Researchers have frequently suggested that more deprived and unequal communities may be more likely to exhibit less cohesion. Poorer communities have a disproportionate population of immigrants, and it is therefore possible to mistake low cohesion caused by poverty for low cohesion caused by immigration.
Home Secretary, Theresa May has recently recommitted any future Conservative government to reducing net immigration to below 100,000 a year. In justifying the cap, she argued that ‘uncontrolled immigration makes it more difficult to maintain social cohesion’. The evidence presented in today’s report suggests that there is little evidence for that claim.
May and other policymakers should be acutely aware of the importance of their migration policies. Immigrants contribute more in taxes than they cost in services, they create jobs, and they boost GDP. Policymakers should therefore be extremely cautious in restricting immigration on the basis of unproven claims that immigration damages social cohesion. Politicians risk damaging the UK economy on the basis of unsubstantiated claims.
The evidence presented here shows that impoverishment and deprivation may pose a more significant risk to the cohesiveness of our communities than immigration. The restriction of immigration is likely to damage the UK economy and therefore be counter-productive in the aim of improving cohesion. Policymakers must be aware that their migration policies may damage the very cohesion that they seek to construct.
The negative effect of immigration on social cohesion has frequently been cited as a reason for reducing immigration, but the evidence for this claim is extremely tenuous. Some researchers have suggested that it is deprivation, rather than immigration, which is most detrimental to community cohesion.
Policymakers should be wary of reducing net migration with the aim of improving cohesion. In fact, reducing immigration may lead to lower cohesion if it results in a reduction of prosperity.