'We want the Observatory to be the voice of reason in a debate driven by politicised positions', say researchers at the University’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS).
The Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society sits within Oxford's School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography
By Maria Coyle
In many respects this summer's referendum on EU membership looked more like a referendum on Britain’s migration policy, and on the EU's role as a source of migrants. In this political climate, the work of the University’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) has become more valuable than ever.
Its researchers have set up The Migration Observatory to provide impartial, independent, evidence-based analysis of data from across the UK. They pick their way through the latest raw data collected by the Office of National Statistics to find trends or give context in their briefings and analyses on the website. Oxford's Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, founded in 2003, explores some of the key facets of migration
As well as carrying out their own original research, they analyse the findings of NGOs, think-tanks and other relevant groups. ‘We want the Migration Observatory to be viewed as the voice of reason in a debate driven by politicised positions,’ says the Head of Media and Communications at the Migration Observatory, Rob McNeil. ‘Our aim is to show that, whatever it concludes, its objectivity can’t be disputed.’
Bridget Anderson, Professor of Migration and Citizenship and Research Director at COMPAS, identifies Tony Blair’s government as the first to show real interest in looking at the evidence behind migration policies. Shortly before COMPAS was set up in 2003, Oxford researchers did some work for Blair’s government, looking at the issues around the integration of immigrants in the UK. Michael Keith was a commissioner on the Blair government’s response to the 2005 London bombings – the Commission on Integration and Cohesion – and is the current Director of COMPAS. The Migration Observatory is keen to involve people of all political persuasions; indeed, the then Migration Minister and a Conservative MP, Damian Green, was the guest of honour at its launch.Sushila Dhall (St Hilda's, 1986), who works as a psychotherapist at Refugee Resource in Oxford
COMPAS boasts a multidisciplinary team of researchers, who often enter a polarised debate. Those involved with the Migration Observatory frequently do media interviews, communicating their analyses as clearly as possible to a non-academic audience. There are graphs, charts, briefings and videos on their website, as such technical data might otherwise seem incomprehensible to those other than academics or policy wonks. Crucially, they try to present as balanced a picture as possible, providing the flipsides to multifaceted arguments and drawing attention to ‘gaps’ in the evidence too.
Examples of where the Migration Observatory has influenced the debate include work by Dr Scott Blinder on public attitudes towards migrants. He found that British people surveyed in 2011 most often thought of migrants as asylum-seekers; attitudes were less negative than the polls at the time suggested when the public were asked about other types of migrants, such as students. Later, in 2012, the Observatory produced a report that questioned whether government attempts to stabilise the UK population below 70 million would even be possible. It came out just before a parliamentary debate about whether immigration levels should be reduced and outlined the ‘trade-offs’, including the potentially damaging effects on universities and business. ‘It was quite a moment to see MPs on all sides in the House of Commons brandishing the Migration Observatory report on TV,’ says Rob McNeil.Professor Bridget Anderson, author of Who Needs Migrant Workers?
COMPAS research is driven by the academics’ own interests, covering a spectrum of global migration processes: from the conditions where migrants come from, to institutions and activities affecting their mobility, to the social and economic conditions of the host countries. COMPAS has particular expertise in relation to migration and the labour market. One publication, the book Who Needs Migrant Workers?, edited by Professor Bridget Anderson and Dr Martin Ruhs, was highly acclaimed by many working in the field and received national media coverage.
‘Discussing the theory behind policy is really important,’ says Professor Anderson. ‘At a recent COMPAS workshop on begging, police officers who attended were really excited by an explanation of theories of political thought.’ COMPAS recently started the Global Exchange on Migration and Diversity to encourage more information sharing between academics, policymakers and professionals, and led a drama project in schools where pupils put on performances exploring migrant issues.
While the migration debate may remain toxic, the researchers hope conversations are now ‘more complicated’, with more talk of what is ‘known’ or ‘unknown’ amid the claims being made.
This article first appeared in Blueprint magazine