Credit: Ted McGrath, CC BY NC SA 2.0

Budapest Keleti Station (Credit: Ted McGrath, CC BY NC SA 2.0)

The body of a small boy, 3-year old Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a beach near the Turkish resort of Bodrum. This was the tragic image that captured mass media attention, and galvanised responses from a number of EU leaders including David Cameron.

The incident drives home the potency of such images in motivating sympathy. Psychology studies have shown that identifiable victims are much more likely to trigger altruistic responses than abstract information or statistics. We’ve seen this effect before. During the NATO operation in Iraq, it wasn’t statistics of casualties that triggered outrage so much as images of children injured by the bombing. Charities have long recognised this, basing campaigns on pictures of and stories about individuals – usually children – rather than anonymous facts and figures.

This image seemed all the more powerful given how number-centric the UK debate on immigration has become. UK policy and political debate on immigration has been increasingly driven by abstract, quantitative descriptors. The pattern was started under the Labour government, with its penchant for quantified targets. Asylum was not exempt from this: Labour set several targets on asylum processing and removals. Notoriously, Tony Blair even personally set a target of halving asylum applications in 2003, when annual applications were hovering around 100,000.

The net migration target – the Conservative Party pledge to reduce net migration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands – takes this quantification of goals to a new level. Labour targets applied to specific categories or outcomes. The net migration target blurs any distinction between different categories of immigrants, or their reasons for moving, or the type of impact they might have on UK society.

The target has been widely criticised as distorting policy priorities, damaging business interests and as impossible to deliver. But such quantitative goals tend to have particular traction. They are simple, clear, easily understood and communicable. And while they may be questioned by their detractors, they can have a number of subtle but significant effects on the way we frame immigration issues. I want to focus on two such effects of the current net migration target.

First, the net migration has reframed the debate on immigration by setting up a single category (migrants), and subjecting it to a binary ascription: more is bad, less is good. Not only does this obscure any consideration of the social or economic impacts of immigration, or how these are spread across different parts of the UK. It also normalises the idea that immigration policy is essentially about population control. And while the government, to its credit, has made numerous attempts to distinguish between different categories of immigrants – high skilled workers and ‘genuine’ foreign students have been singled out as beneficial to the UK economy – it is difficult to sustain such nuances while remaining committed to a headline numerical target. Thus it’s not surprising that the government has been reluctant to accept a greater number of Syrian refugees. It would directly undermine its work towards achieving the target.

The second effect is the issue linkage that has been forged between immigration and EU membership. The UK’s EU membership is now commonly perceived as the main impediment to meeting the net migration target. It’s seen as the bit we can’t control. In fact, pretty much all of the current 300,000 or so net migration is ‘the bit we can’t control’ – that is, if we want to support business, higher education, and meet basic human rights and humanitarian commitments. All liberal democratic immigration countries struggle to reconcile these ‘liberal constraints’ with generally anti-immigration public opinion.

But the notion that the EU would foist thousands more refugees on the UK is seen as the final straw. In fact, taking an additional 10,000 or 20,000 refugees would hardly be a stretch for the UK, which currently receives around 25,000 applicants a year – down from 100,000 or so a decade ago. And of course this is just a fraction of Germany’s projected intake of 800,000 this year. But again, given the fixation with minimising inflows – and the fact that this quota emanates from the EU – the request appears especially unpalatable. As recently as May 2015, the government made a renewed commitment to the net migration target, with Cameron personally heading up a task force to push for its implementation. And given nervousness about Eurosceptic backbenchers and a feared Brexit, government reticence about taking more refugees is hardly surprising.

So what are the prospects for the government being swayed on this matter? Media images certainly appear to be having some effect, and are prompting urgent appeals from various political and non-governmental groups. So too do arguments harking back to Europe’s response to refugee flows from Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, which also play well with many in the Conservative Party. Both arguments appeal to personal sympathy, as well as notions of a historical legacy of extending humanity and refuge.

By contrast, framing the question in terms of quantitative goals has had an unreservedly negative effect. The distinction between labour migrants, students, family migrants and asylum seekers has been obscured, and their impact has been compressed by a logic of reducing population growth. Moreover, the treatment of each migrant as an equivalent, quantifiable unit has served to abstract from the particularities of individual cases. Such quantitative descriptions bracket off those very features that might trigger empathy or concern.

So let’s have more of the pictures and stories, more of the emotive historical comparisons. And please, less of the statistics and quantitative targets.

Note: This article was originally published on the PSA’s Insight blog. It represents the views of the authors and not those of Democratic Audit UK or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting.

christinaChristina Boswell is Professor of Politics at the University of Edinburgh. She tweets