Ayesha Hazarika: We need to talk more about immigration’s benefits

The reconstructed face of 'Cheddar Man' who lived in the UK about 10,000 years ago
The reconstructed face of 'Cheddar Man' who lived in the UK about 10,000 years ago
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The most mind-blowing story of the year so far is Cheddar Man. The results of analysis of the 10,000-year-old’s DNA revealed he would have had these piercing blue eyes and dark to black skin. He sounds pretty hot to be honest – you could imagine him in a Benetton advert.

Many took to Twitter to declare their lust for him and he was quickly renamed Cheddar Gorge. But I digress. Three hundred generations later about 10 per cent of the genome of many white British people alive today comes from this man’s dark-skinned population. As a western hunter gatherer (ooh – such an alpha – swoon) he travelled here to these shores through Europe. He was an immigrant. And that means we are too.

Immigration has become a toxic issue in this country and indeed all over the world. We can’t seem to get our heads around the fact that it is – and always has been – human nature to go out into the world, travel and explore. Unless you’re me. I prefer to stay at home, watching Netflix with the heating on. Actually, I don’t think me and Cheddar Man would have made it. Maybe Netflix is the only way to stop freedom of movement…

We have a such an unhealthy public discourse around immigration. We seem incapable of having a sensible, responsible and factually based discussion about it. Political parties and the newspaper owners of this country have failed to talk about it a positive, accurate way.

READ MORE: First modern Briton had ‘dark to black’ skin

As immigration increased, it was inevitable that there would be some anxieties. There always is when there’s social change. But instead of tackling it head on and discussing, debating and setting the record straight on the benefits of immigration, politicians on all sides put their heads down and left a deafening and dangerous silence, which was filled by the right-wing tabloid press and our old mate Nigel Farage. Nature abhors a vacuum.

The public have been fed a toxic diet of scare stories about immigrants “swamping” our countries; “sponging” off the system; “ripping off” our health service – emotional, nasty, inaccurate language designed to make people frightened about people who look different or sound different. If I believed everything I read in the right-wing press, I would probably arrest my entire family including myself. We blame immigrants for everything because it’s the easy, lazy thing to do.

My favourite piece of immigration hysteria was when Farage blamed immigration for the traffic on the M4 motorway. Brexit was dominated by the issue and “take back control” to a lot of people meant reducing immigration. But we have no sense from the UK Government, what the plan is for immigration in a post-Brexit Britain.

READ MORE: Paris Gourtsoyannis: Why we are all immigrants

There was meant to be an immigration white paper, but this has been delayed. The Home Affairs Select Committee, which has been looking into immigration, has published a report today which warns that the lack of clarity is creating anxiety for EU citizens in the UK, huge uncertainty for businesses which may need to plan for possible staff shortages, and will make it hard for already overstretched immigration officials to plan for things like border checks.

These are all huge issues and they need to be addressed, but because the Cabinet is so fundamentally divided over what kind of Brexit they want, we are all stuck. The cross-party Select Committee, which is chaired by Yvette Cooper and includes the SNP’s Stuart C McDonald, held an inquiry and came up with some sensible ideas including an Annual Migration Report, which would set out a three-year rolling plan looking at practical issues like sectors, skills, the positive impact of immigration and how to manage the pressures but most importantly how to build a consensus with the public.

There is also a question of whether we should have a more regional approach to immigration. Nicola Sturgeon, while acknowledging there are concerns about immigration, has been making a sensible “pocket and purse” case for Scotland to attract more people to grow the working population especially with an ageing population.

She is right to say that it is in Scotland’s national self-interest. Fiona Hyslop published a paper last week which showed that if the UK’s net immigration is cut to the tens of thousands, this could reduce Scotland’s GDP by more than £10 billion a year by 2040. Giving Scotland more power to tailor its own migration policy to reflect its own unique circumstances has appeal.

Immigration is not going away as an issue. Politicians need to step up and talk about it with facts, reason, courage and compassion. And be reminded – we are all immigrants.