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Assumptions about migrants’ birth rates are protected by a façade of scientific objectivity but are inaccurate and poison public debate about immigration.  As protests by the far-right, islamophobic group, the English Defence League (EDL) continue unabated, Kamaljeet Gill argues for a better breed of debate.

While not all groups are as racially provocative or openly aggressive as the EDL, most ‘anti-Islamisation’  rhetoric displays worrying trends. One of the arguments used by those who advocate tight controls on immigration is that without them host nations would be swamped because arrivals from the developing world have such high birth rates. This argument is added to the mix about concern over coping with the pressures of inward migration and the impact on the nation’s culture.  One argument goes something like this: these new arrivals will outbreed the native population and the host culture and its norms will break down under the pressure of different codes, ethics and beliefs. Britain will come under Sharia law, Israel will cease to be Jewish and so on.

This kind of discourse is overwhelmingly deployed against Muslims. Such discourses serve to legitimate the kind of far-right sensationalism that forms the core message of groups such as the EDL and the British National Party.

The argument about birth rates is a powerful one because it allows its proponents the veneer of objectivity. Its use does not rely on the old claims about superiority that are now so discredited. “This has nothing to do with race,” those who use it claim. “This is about demography.” But it is insidious: having established moderate, liberal and scientific credentials, those who use the birth rate argument, too often then descend into crude demagoguery littered with racially charged rhetoric and biological determinism.

In reality racial theory underpins many of these discourses. Underlying them are racial ideologies prevalent among European colonialists of the nineteenth century, which associated different races with particular gender types as well as sexual behaviour. Racial theorists concerned themselves with statistics about the various races they identified, openly tying this data to concepts such as masculinity and femininity. So, in India, the British divided communities into those they considered ‘masculine’ and those they considered ‘effeminate’. Muslims were wild, cruel and fanatical but fundamentally rugged, active and virile. The Hindu was perceived as feminine: passive, dishonest and weak.

There are echoes of this ideology running through popular panics about mass migration, particularly in reference to Muslims. Fierce, virile Muslims now pose a threat to a vulnerable, welcoming and passive British society (characterised as a civilised and somewhat effeminate culture). In this story, the host nation is no longer capable of defending its borders or proclaiming its values; it cannot even maintain a healthy birth rate.

There is a biological determinism at work here which is deeply troubling. The implication is that birth rate is a fixed and immutable quality. If assumptions of this nature were made about intelligence – as they occasionally are – it would prompt outcry. But people who proclaim themselves to be committed liberals and decry racism in the most fervent terms will happily express views about fixed birth rates without a moment’s hesitation. Not only are these views offensive, they are palpably untrue. Fertility is clearly correlated to environment.

A glance at the UN World Population Forecast demonstrates an almost exact correlation between declining infant mortality and declining fertility rates. When people live in more developed nations where their children get a better start in life, they have fewer children. The statistics on immigration are slightly more complicated; the first generation to arrive tends to have more than the national average number of children. But there is no evidence that this trend continues into subsequent generations. A study in California found that second generation migrants have significantly lower fertility than their parents and that education, income and wealth become far more important markers than fertility. And anecdotally it is possible to meet second generation Irish migrants in the UK with more than ten siblings, but it is rare to find any who have that many children themselves.

Demography is assumed to be a science like mathematics and equally politically neutral. Dubious facts are trotted out with all the authority possessed by technical lexicon and specialist terminology. This is why arguments like these are still routinely accepted in debate, whether in national media or around the dinner table and such acceptance makes them an invaluable tool in the propaganda of extremists.

Kamaljeet Gill is a researcher with leading race equality think tank the Runnymede Trust. The Runnymede Trust generates intelligence for a successful multi-ethnic Britain through research, network building, leading debate, and policy engagement.


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