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Gary Younge
Immigrants cause job losses? Like ice-cream brings sharks

'The facts speak only when the historian calls on them," EH Carr argued in his landmark essay, The Historian and His Facts, almost 50 years ago. "It is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context … It is the historian who has decided for his own reasons that Caesar's crossing of that petty stream, the Rubicon, is a fact of history, whereas the crossing of the Rubicon by millions of other people before or since interests nobody at all."

When it comes to media coverage of immigration the facts that are given the floor, the context in which they are interpreted and the conclusions that then emerge make rational debate, let alone effective policy making, nigh impossible. The problem is not that the facts are selective – all facts are selected somehow and for some purpose. But they are selected poorly and with the specific intent of creating panic, fostering resentment and stoking xenophobia.

And it works. A Mori poll in 2002 revealed that more than a third of the country believed there were too many immigrants. It's not difficult to see why. The public's mean estimation of the proportion of immigrants in Britain is 23%; the actual figure was around 4%. If you walked around thinking everything was six times larger than it actually was you would find most things scary.

So it was last week when the Office for National Statistics released its most recent employment figures. The statistics showed a net increase of 188,000 people in work between April and June compared to January and March. Of those, the number of UK-born people employed rose by 41,000 (a 0.2% rise) and while those born outside the UK went up by 145,000 (a 3.9% rise). Compared with the same period in 2009 the figures showed an overall 101,000 increase in employment. Over this period, the number of UK-born people with jobs fell by 15,000 (-0.1%) while the number for those born outside the UK went up by 114,000 (3.1%).

Such are the facts. In a paper released today called Immigration and Employment: Anatomy of a Media Story, the Institute for Public Policy Research produced an analysis of the coverage.

On their front page the Express announced "Foreigners get 77% of new jobs in Britain as too many of us live on benefits." Page two of the Mail declared: "Foreign workers surge by 114,000 … but the number of Britons with jobs falls." Meanwhile the Telegraph stated: "Record four out of five jobs going to foreigners between May and June."

Each then went on in various ways to imply whatever new "British jobs" were created had been taken by foreigners.

Reasonable people may debate whether the language in these articles is inflammatory, but no one can deny that they are all in some way inaccurate. In their desperation to define the "other" all three papers mistake nationality for place of birth. To be born outside the UK does not make you foreign. If it does then Paddy Ashdown, George Orwell, Rudyard Kipling, Cliff Richard, Spike Milligan, Joanna Lumley and Prince Philip would have to be cast out of the national story.

Given all made the same mistake, this was no mere semantic mix-up – it reflects a mind-set. Nor is the distinction a matter of pedantry. An error in the language presages an error in the facts. The ONS figures actually show a tiny rise in the employment of Britons of 4,000 between this year and last and a more sizable jump in the employment of foreigners of 97,000 (4.2%). The second half of the Mail headline should have read: "The number of Britons with jobs stalls".

Nonetheless the broad trend these papers describe is accurate. The lion's share of the rise in employment over the last year can be accounted for by the increase in non-British citizens finding work. The trouble is, by itself this does not tell us an awful lot about "new" jobs or how immigrants are faring in the job market compared with Britons.

As Sarah Mulley, a senior fellow at the IPPR, points out in her paper, since most migration is economic people are less likely to come and more likely to leave if jobs are scarce – making unemployment among migrants less likely. Also, since migrants are less likely to be settled and therefore can go where jobs are plentiful. Concentrated in different sectors from the population as a whole – and generally not in the public sector – this recession will affect migrants differently.

But it is a leap of (bad) faith to conclude from those statistics that British employment is stalling because immigrant employment is going up. The fact is, anecdotal evidence aside, there simply is no proof that immigrants cause unemployment. "The best available UK micro-economic evidence on the effects of migration on employment," concluded an earlier IPPR report which was in line with research in other OECD countries, "finds either no effect at all, or very small negative effects."

Because two things are correlated does not mean one causes the other. Shark attacks and ice-cream sales both rise in the summer. They're linked by the season. But that doesn't mean ice-cream attracts sharks or people react to fear about shark attacks by eating more ice-cream.

This doesn't mean there aren't important issues at stake regarding migration, the economy or employment. But they aren't the issues being raised by the right. "It's difficult to have a productive conversation when everyone is working from different facts," Mulley says. "We need better data and more research. But we also need an honest broker to interpret them because the public doesn't trust the government on this issue anymore."

Unemployment is important and people's anxieties about immigration should be addressed. But their prejudices needn't be pandered to and can't be confronted on the basis of wanton misinterpretations. Stopping immigration as a means of fighting unemployment makes about as much sense as banning ice-cream sales in a bid to reduce shark attacks. And it will do about as much good too.

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