Fear of foreigners is nothing new, yet rarely has panic about
immigration been so feverish. It tops voters’ list of concerns,
jangling raw nerves about jobs, public services, race and terrorism.
The new bogeyman is a Muslim asylum seeker. Yet, contrary to tabloid
hysteria, we are not being swamped with immigrants – nor are they a
threat. Fewer than 10% of people in Britain were born abroad. Asylum
applications were a mere 25,710 in 2005, while 15,685 failed asylum
seekers were deported; the refusal rate exceeds 80%. Britain, a soft
While immigration has risen over the past 15 years, the net inflow in 2005 was still only 185,000 – 0.3% of the UK population. Headlines about 600,000 eastern Europeans arriving since 2004 are misleading: most of them have already left again and many are, in effect, international commuters who spend only part of the year here; the number staying longer than 12 months has risen by just 110,000.
So it is claptrap to blame migrants for overcrowded roads, trains and hospitals, which are largely the result of rising affluence and decades of underinvestment. On the contrary, were it not for foreign doctors and nurses, the NHS would collapse.
Britain’s open door for eastern European workers is a huge success. It has proved to be a revolving door – and far from bringing Britain to its knees, temporary migrants fill vital gaps in the labour market. Mostly young and single, they pay taxes but cannot claim most benefits (6% claim child benefit), so they are not a drain on the state but a boon. Nor do they steal our jobs: the employment rate is virtually unchanged on a year ago, while average wages are up 3.8%. Unemployment has nudged up, but not because of migrants. Just as women entering the workforce did not cost men jobs, nor do foreigners: they create jobs as they spend their wages.
"Those parts of the country that are seeing job losses are not those where migrant workers are most prevalent," notes Brendan Barber, the TUC general secretary. "They will go where there are job vacancies, not dole queues" – even to the Scottish Highlands, where Poles are reviving communities that young Scots have fled. Precisely because they are more willing to move to where the jobs are, and to do dirty, difficult and dangerous work that young Britons shun, migrants have helped sustain Britain’s longest-ever economic boom without sparking inflation.
Consider old-age care, the fastest-growing sector of employment. Young Britons eschew it. To persuade them otherwise would require a huge wage hike – and since public finances are strained, that implies either pensioners making do with less care, budget cuts elsewhere, or tax rises. But immigrants face a different set of alternatives: since wages in London are five times higher than in Warsaw, they are happy doing such work. This is not exploitation: it makes everyone – migrants, taxpayers, Britons young and old – better off. Where there is abuse, legal migrants have recourse to unions and the law. It is illegal migrants, victims of our callous but ineffective border controls, who are most at risk: remember the cockle pickers of Morecambe Bay.
Migrants from poor countries working in rich ones send home much more – $200bn a year officially, perhaps another $400bn informally – than the miserly $80bn western governments give in aid. These remittances go straight into local people’s pockets, paying for food, clean water and medicines, enabling children to stay in school, and benefiting the local economy. Just as EU trade barriers that prevent African farmers selling the fruits of their labour in Britain are unfair, so are immigration controls that stop Africans selling their labour here.
Immigrants also make native workers more productive: nurses from the Philippines allow doctors to provide more patients with better care. They also add diversity and dynamism, stimulating innovation and enterprise, and thus economic growth: witness the buzz of a cosmopolitan city such as London. Innovation most often comes from groups of talented people sparking off each other. If they have different perspectives they can solve problems better. Look at Silicon Valley: Intel, Yahoo!, Google and eBay were all founded by migrants.
Undeniably, learning to live together can be tough. Yet closing our borders would not reduce the terrorist threat from a tiny home-grown minority, while anti-immigrant rhetoric fuels hatred towards existing ethnic minorities. While concern about entrenched segregation is understandable, the real issue is not multiculturalism, but social exclusion. Nobody is terrified of rich whites clustering in Chelsea.
As for shared values, society is broad enough to accommodate nuns and transsexuals, Marxists and libertarians, eco-warriors and city slickers – but we must all abide by parliamentary democracy constrained by fundamental principles such as freedom within the law, equality before the law and tolerance of differences. And while we fall well short of the lofty ideals of liberal democracy – discrimination is rife, tolerance limited – they are still the standards we aspire to and the basis of our peaceful coexistence.