The Conversation

How the coronavirus pandemic may be shaping our feelings about people crossing the Channel in small boats

Ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s recently engaged in an unlikely exchange with the British government. In a series of tweets, the company pleaded with the home secretary to show more compassion towards immigrants who take on the dangerous journey across the English Channel to seek asylum in the UK, stating that “people cannot be illegal”.

In response, Home Office insiders branded the ice cream an “overpriced junk food”. The exchange emerged as the home secretary called to change the UK asylum laws to help deter future Channel crossings.

Politicians are not the only ones who are concerned about the Channel arrivals. Major news outlets such as the BBC Breakfast team and Sky News provided a detailed coverage of the migrants arriving on British shores in small boats.

Given the ongoing coronavirus crisis across the UK, what is behind the sudden interest in asylum seekers entering the country? After all, the 4,000 crossings made this year represent less than 2% of total migration to the UK in 2019. It may have something to do with the recent economic crisis in the UK caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Research on the subject, including my own work, shows that economic insecurity and rises in unemployment can lead to negative attitudes towards immigrants and other minority groups. In short, both politicians and the news outlets are taking advantage of a wider trend among the UK population.

Why do crises increase prejudice?

According to the Office for National Statistics, the UK entered the largest economic recession on record between April and June, when its economy shrank by 20.4%. The government’s job retention scheme is also due to end in October, so unemployment is expected to rise by a staggering 3.5 million people. With businesses struggling even after the lockdown restrictions were eased, economists warn that recovery will take a long time.

Academic research shows that economic downturns lead to negative views of those who do not belong to our social groups. There are two main explanations for this. The first theory claims that crises lead to economic competition between social groups and increases hostility between them. In times of high unemployment and economic uncertainty, like the one caused by the coronavirus pandemic, people worry that they might have to compete with migrants and asylum seekers for limited resources, such as jobs, benefits or health services. During the pandemic, the number of jobs has sharply decreased and the access to health care has been limited. This competition could drive hostile attitudes towards migrants crossing the Channel.

The second theory states that people displace their fear and frustration caused by the crisis onto a more vulnerable group, treating them as scapegoats. When people feel unsafe, they look for worldviews that are simple and uncomplicated to restore a sense of order in their lives.

Black-and-white thinking of this kind is often encouraged by more nationalist and patriotic groups who believe that some people are less deserving of living in a particular country than others. This theory is particularly convincing because we also know that, in times of crisis, people are worried about more than economic competition – they also worry about the cultural impact of migration. That has little to do with how many jobs are available or how strained health services might be, so it instead reflects this sense of finding an outlet for fear.

Regardless of which theory we prefer to explain the rise in prejudice in times of economic crisis, many studies confirm that economic downturns lead to an increase in negative views of immigrants. These findings are also reflected in a recent YouGov poll, which shows that 49% of the British population have little or no sympathy for migrants attempting to cross the Channel. This is in comparison to 44% of Britons who feel some or a great deal of sympathy for the migrants.

With this in mind, it is worth remembering that the sudden increase in interest in the Channel crossings might have little to do with the scale of migration. Instead, it likely reflects the level of uncertainty and insecurity felt by the British people in the wake of an unprecedented health and economic crisis.

Barbara Yoxon does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.