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UKIP's Nigel Farage and the controversial anti-migrant poster that helped sway the vote in favour of leaving the EU

Brexit and anti-immigration politics

As the UK voted in a referendum to leave the EU, and many of those that wanted out explained that the influx of migrants from eastern Europe was their reason for choosing to leave, it appears from social media that many Nigerians in the UK also shared similar sentiments against immigrants from the former Soviet bloc.

This article from 2013 attempts to separate the facts from the rhetoric in the politics of immigration.

Time to talk “tough” on immigration

The rightwing, anti-immigration UK Independence Party’s (UKIP) strong showing in this year’s local elections was the cue for typical kneejerk reaction from the Tories and Labour. Instead of countering UKIP’s anti-immigration rhetoric, both parties are falling over each other on who can be “tougher” on immigration.

Prime Minister David Cameron, in what has been described as a “fresh attempt to curb immigration”, plans new legislation that will “ensure that this country attracts people who will contribute, and deter those who will not”. Not to be outdone, Labour leader Ed Miliband claimed the last Labour government was not “sufficiently alive to people’s concerns” over immigration and his party had got “the numbers wrong”.

Why are people “concerned” about immigration? Much of this is down to hysteria whipped up by the mainstream print media, especially the tabloids. However, this concern has precious little to do with reality, but a lot to do with perceptions that are fuelled by prejudices against that shadowy “other” from foreign climes.

Such prejudices were brought to the fore during the last general election when deposed Prime Minister Gordon Brown was confronted on the campaign trail in Rochdale by a woman, Gillian Duffy, who asked him why “all those East Europeans were flocking here”. Brown, to his credit, tried to educate the woman about the fact that millions of Brits were also “flocking” to other countries. Brown was later heard muttering to an aide about the “bigoted woman” as they drove off.

The reaction in the mainstream media was very instructive about the respectability afforded anti-immigrant prejudice in the UK. Much of the debate was around Brown and his behaviour, how the woman did nothing wrong, and had asked a “legitimate” question about immigration. I can’t recall anyone in the media accepting the truthfulness in Brown’s comments about the woman.

Little was said about the fact that East Europeans have every right to be here under European Union legislation that was championed by the UK to encourage the free movement of capital, so that British businesses can make inroads into previously closed economies of the former Soviet bloc. Those that preached free market fundamentalism to Eastern Europe shouldn’t really be complaining when the free movement of capital naturally encourages the free movement of labour.

“Flocking” has negative undertones that echoed the “swamping” term made respectable by Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s and 1980s as she ratcheted up anti-immigrant sentiments, in the footsteps of her political forebears like Enoch Powell, who in 1968 warned that there will be “rivers of blood” if immigration went unchecked.

Then Powell’s bile was directed at immigrants from the Commonwealth, and the unspoken rule was that white immigrants from Canada, Australia and New Zealand were welcome. It was the dark-skinned Commonwealth immigrants that inflamed the passions of the locals. Powell’s pandering to racists in his own party and the wider population was crystallised by the slogan fellow Tory Peter Griffiths deployed in the 1964 general election to win the inner Birmingham seat of Smethwick: “If you want a #$%$* for a neighbour vote Labour”. 46 years later, a British National Party leaflet was shoved through my letter box during the 2010 general elections informing me to: “vote New Labour if you want new neighbours”.

We have come a long way from the dark days of 1964 and anyone distributing leaflets such as Griffiths’ would be on a charge of incitement to racial hatred. Code words and dog whistles have replaced the more overt language. Now the talk is about a “debate on immigration”, the target seems to be the latest arrivals from Eastern Europe, and because it is no longer as apparent as it was in Enoch Powell’s era that “anti-immigration” is really “anti-dark-skinned immigrants”, many black immigrants and descendants of immigrants in the UK are not averse to expressing the same anti East European sentiment.

The anti East European bandwagon-jumpers don’t seem to recognise that every wave of immigration to the UK through the centuries faced a similar backlash, fuelled by the same type of xenophobia against aliens, and with little regard for the facts about how those immigrants enriched the host society.

Today’s anti-immigrants include many with roots in Ireland and seem unaware that they are repeating the same naked hostility that Irish immigrants faced in this country in the mid-19th century for example. By the 1840s in the period of the Great Famine, Irish immigrants were “flocking” like East Europeans into Britain in search of work. With their Roman Catholicism, they were perceived as alien with strange habits, and because they were mainly poor, were blamed for the slum conditions that blighted major British cities. Irish immigrants later assimilated with the host society, and became part of the social fabric, despite ingrained hostility towards them, and some of their descendants would welcome the next wave of immigrants with the same prejudices that their Irish forebears faced.

It was hardly different when Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe landed on these shores. Between 1881 and 1914, about 150,000 Jewish settlers came to Britain. They were welcomed with hostility and xenophobia from the anti-immigration lobby. One magazine labeled Jews a “pest and a menace”. This was the backdrop for the UK’s first attempt at immigration control with Arthur Balfour’s Tory government passing the 1905 Alien’s Act. The act led to a rise in anti-Semitism fuelled by sections of the press and politicians. One Tory MP likened Jewish immigration to the importation of diseased cattle from Canada. Jewish immigrants were accused of stealing jobs from British workers and being a strain on the welfare system, echoing the same fact-free claims deployed against immigrants today.

The 1950s and 1960s witnessed the influx of workers from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent to help the postwar reconstruction effort in areas where there were labour shortages. In the early 1960s Enoch Powell, as health minister, appealed to doctors from Pakistan and India, and Jamaican nurses to help staff hospitals under severe strain. I once saw on TV a retired midwife from the Caribbean saying that after she was racially abused by some louts, she thought to herself that she probably brought them into this world in the maternity ward.

Up to the early 1960s there was a drive from the government and private companies to recruit directly from the Caribbean. When the demand for labour started to drop and unemployment started to rise, the Tory government introduced the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962 which was the first attempt to restrict the movement of Commonwealth citizens into Britain. It meant that entry to the UK could only be allowed if the applicant had a work voucher from their prospective employer. This was mainly directed at immigrants from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent and therefore became the first racially discriminatory legislation on immigration. From 1962 through to the 1970s the drive for subsequent immigration legislation was to place further restrictions on entry for dark-skinned former colonial subjects. Terminology such as “New Commonwealth” was used to separate the white Commonwealth nations like Australia and Canada from the dark-skinned ones who were subjected to draconian entry requirements.

There are common threads that bind together all these anti-immigration laws – the xenophobia of the indigenous population based on mythology is fuelled by scaremongering in the gutter press, with politicians cashing in by trying to outdo each other by acting “tough” on immigration and promising even more severe restrictions. Missing from all these are the facts that the country needs immigrants, that they have enriched it, that the presence of immigrants here is a net gain for the UK and a possible net loss for their home countries. But very few politicians are prepared to gamble on telling the truth about immigration, though they all claim to welcome the “debate” – a “debate” they have allowed to be framed by racists and those that pander to them especially in the tabloids.

The first truth that needs to be told about immigration is that the super-exploitation inherent in British capitalism helped create the conditions that brought many immigrants to the UK in the first place. The Great Famine in Ireland which prompted large scale Irish immigration had its roots in British economic policies. Britain played the major role in the forceful immigration of millions of Africans as slaves to the “New World” to work on British plantations. And it was British conquest of large parts of the world for colonial plunder that brought people from the Commonwealth into contact with the “mother country”.

Secondly, the majority of new immigrants tend to be of working age and trained in their home countries. This means that the UK benefits from the investment of the home countries in educating those immigrants. An ageing population that is living longer needs more people of working age than those available from the indigenous population, especially because of a declining birth rate, in order to support the ageing population in retirement. The UN’s Population Division estimates that you need four to five people of working age to support one elderly person over 65. Immigration is a ready alternative to plug the gap and pay the pensions of future generations.

Anti-immigration campaigners talk about the strain on public services caused by new immigrants.. But many public services could not function without migrants. Key areas like health and social care depend on immigrants. According to a study by the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS), foreign-born workers make up 19% (120,000) of care workers looking after older people. In 2009, 23% of nurses were migrants. A Channel 4 Dispatches programme – “Immigrants: the inconvenient truth”, broadcast in October 2007, claimed the figure may be up to half. The programme also claimed that the National Health Service would collapse without Nigerians. The General Medical Council states that about 91,000 of the UK’s 243,900 doctors qualified outside Britain.

While many sections of the media promote the image that immigration as a result of EU enlargement in 2004 has meant East Europeans milking the benefits system, a study by University College London shows that immigrants from the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia and Poland in 2008 paid 37% more in taxes than was spent on public services that they received. The study also shows that on average, those immigrants have a better educational background than UK-born workers. Home Office research claims that immigrants pay £2.5bn more in taxes than they take in benefits.

According to Stephen Moore of the Cato Institute, immigration to the US – a country that was built on forced and voluntary immigration – is “a form of reverse foreign aid. We give less than $20bn in direct aid to third world nations and we get back $30bn a year in capital assets.” Those “assets” are workers that have been educated in developing countries. He claims that the “assets” are a “lubricant to our capitalistic economy, giving US companies a big edge over European competitors.”

The “assets” that arrive at these shores make significant contributions to the UK economy – boosting the economic growth rate by up to a quarter point according to Treasury estimates. These are people usually overqualified and desperately needed in the poorer countries that they originated from. In Africa, the quality of healthcare is declining as qualified professionals migrate abroad in search of better pay and conditions. This loss is compensated to some degree by the remittances African workers send back home.

The World Bank estimated that Nigerians abroad sent back $21 billion to Nigeria in 2012. This was only second to oil as Nigeria’s source of foreign currency. Remittances to Africa from Africans abroad are estimated to be up to twice the amount of foreign aid that Africa receives and unlike foreign aid, they go directly to the needy in terms of funding education, healthcare and subsistence needs.

Immigration has enriched the UK and is keeping people alive in the home countries of the immigrants. The benefits go beyond immigrant labour propping up public services. 22 of Britain’s 114 Nobel laureates were born abroad. Many successful firms such as Tesco, Marks & Spencer, easyJet and several others were founded by immigrants and their offspring.

The scaremongers claim that there are too many people in the UK, and that this is making social housing scarce and a strain on public services. But the problem is caused by a lack of investment. Most newcomers do not get council homes because they are not entitled to it. The shortages are a result of many homes being sold off – a legacy of Mrs Thatcher’s “right to buy” policy – and few new homes built.

Immigration has been a resounding success for countries like the UK and a relative loss to the immigrants’ countries of origin. It can be argued that this country would not have recovered from the damage of World War II without immigrant labour. Opinion-formers have continued to narrow the “debate” on immigration in such a way that it is viewed as a “problem” that must be confronted. This is because the real issue about the so-called debate has never been about immigration, which for a very long time has been controlled and limited for those outside the EU, but about the racism and xenophobia of the ignorant hordes and politicians and the media that have abandoned their public duty to play the critical role of informing the citizenry in a democracy.

This country has always relied on immigrants both to help generate wealth when their labour is needed and to serve as useful scapegoats during periods of economic turmoil. When its leaders are bereft of ideas on how to drag their country out of an economic quagmire of their own making, it is time to blame foreigners and “get tough” on immigration.

By Ken Chigbo, this article was first published in the Weekly World magazine.

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