Voters change their minds “very easily and very rapidly” on immigration, according to a leading UK think tank chief.
Sara Pantuliano, chief executive of the Overseas Development Institute, said her team had researched public attitudes towards both migrants and refugees in the UK, Germany and Sweden.
She said at an event at the Davos summit of world leaders on Wednesday that public attitudes were less hostile to migration than often assumed in public debate.
“We hear a lot from politicians that they’re responding to what the public wants,” said Pantuliano. “Public attitudes are not as polarised as we think.”
She said surveys suggested that in many countries around a quarter of voters were implacably opposed to immigration, and around a quarter were the opposite in supporting it.
But she said the majority were in the “anxious middle,” with evidence people are a lot more “influencible” than sometimes thought.
“These attitudes are not fixed in time. A tiny incident or happening in the media or event can swing them one way or the other. Positions are not so polarised,” she said.
“But of course populist politicians are having a field day about stoking fears, trying to manipulate what they say is public opinion, when we know it’s not actually the majority of pub opinion.”
She criticised supporters of migration for how they often defend their stance. “There’s been a lot of mythbusting that’s been focused on efficiency, data, giving hard facts—and that doesn’t work.
“Populists are in a way winning the argument as they engage emotions; [they] make their arguments relatable to people’s emotions and we’re not doing that.”
She said supporters, which included many businesses, should highlight success stories about migrant integration.
Pantuliano added that voters in Europe had a “sense of unmanageability of numbers,” but denied this was the case.
But she also said people will “always find a way” to migrate, despite heavy investment in reducing migration and secure borders in Europe.
“Migration is a fact of life since time immemorial,” she said. “That’s not going to change.”
The comments came at a panel event entitled “Debunking the migration myth,” debating how the “power and potential of including migrants in the economy” could increase support for migration.
Alessandra Galloni, global managing editor of news service Reuters who chaired the debate, said more than 3% of the world’s population are migrants but contribute nearly 10% of global GDP.
The WEF summit takes place every year in the town of Davos, a ski resort in the Swiss Alps.
More than 3,000 guests are attending Davos 2020 throughout this week. “Stakeholders for a cohesive and sustainable world” is the official theme, with climate change in particular high on the agenda.
Organisers hope the annual event will facilitate discussion and collaboration to tackle major international issues among some of the most powerful people in the world.
But the summit, typically labelled ‘Davos’ after the host town, has become a lightning rod for criticism of global capitalism and the world’s elite.