There are fears that as recession starts to bite and unemployment soars, hostility towards immigrants is likely to increase not just in Britain but across Europe.
Anyone who has closely followed the immigration “debate” (more a slanging match than a debate) in Britain knows that, mostly, it is a pretext for politicians to grab easy headlines and woo the crucial white anti-immigrant vote. With a general election barely 18 months away (there is, in fact, speculation that it could be held as early as next spring, if Prime Minister Gordon Brown gets a grip on the economic crisis), the temptation among MPs, especially those from marginal constituencies, to position themselves on the issue is clearly proving irresistible.
The argument, though, is that with recession threatening large-scale unemployment the government owes it to native Britons to protect their jobs. So, the new Immigration Minister, Phil Woolas, who won the last election by fewer than 4,000 votes because of an aggressive anti-immigration campaign by the far-right British National Party (BNP), has been letting off some pretty heavy steam, portraying immigration as a threat to British jobs. His parliamentary constituency of Oldham, in northwest England, has a large immigrant — mostly Pakistani and Bangladeshi — population and is sharply polarised on racial lines. In 2001, it saw vicious race riots involving Pakistani and Bangladeshi youth and BNP thugs.
Mr. Woolas’ remarks have re-ignited the “debate” on what is arguably the most divisive socio-political issue in Britain. As much as what he said it was his tone that struck many as “inflammatory.” It embarrassed many of his own Labour party colleagues, particularly those from an immigrant background — like Keith Vaz and Khalid Mahmood. Mr. Mahmood, who is of Pakistani descent, accused the Minister of “pandering to right-wing extremists.”
Mr. Woolas used an interview in The Times to invoke apocalyptic images of Third World hordes knocking at the gates of Great Britain who, if allowed in, would steal British jobs, wreck the British way of life and scrounge up the country’s wonderful public services. Even with a recession looming, Britain was “going to be attractive to people from poorer countries,” lending “urgency” to the need to clamp down on immigration, he said.
Echoing the BNP myth of a Britain “swamped” by ugly, freeloading foreigners, the Minister thundered: “It’s been too easy to get into the country in the past and it’s going to get harder.” It was not right, Mr. Woolas argued, that when the country was in the throes of an economic crisis immigrants were allowed to come and take away British jobs. His advice to employers was: give preference to native Britons. Do not be tempted into employing immigrants simply because they come cheap and are willing to work long hours.
And, then, in a quantum populist leap the Labour Party had so far resisted, Mr. Woolas proposed a cap on the number of immigrants who should be allowed to enter Britain every year — a measure that would affect mainly immigrants from Asia and Africa as the government cannot stop citizens of European Union countries from coming and working in Britain.
While this was music to the ears of anti-immigration pressure groups and the Tories who were quick to hail it as a vindication of their long-standing demand for a quota-based immigration regime, the reaction in his own party was one of anger. Labour MPs questioned his authority to signal such a major shift in government policy. Mr. Vaz, chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, was livid.
“I would be astonished at a Labour Immigration Minister in effect changing the policy. His predecessor and the Home Secretary have made it very clear they do not support a quota,” he said. Another senior party MP and former Minister, Denis MacShane, called Mr. Woolas’ remarks “inflammatory,” while Keith Best, chief executive of the Immigration Advisory Service, accused him of “leading the baying pack” against immigrants. Major trade unions and immigrant welfare groups protested, saying his proposal to put an upper limit on immigration made nonsense of the new skills-based points system, put in place by his predecessor Liam Byrne.
Under this system, hailed as the “biggest shake-up” of the country’s immigration rules in a generation, only people with skills that British employers need are to be permitted to come to Britain. It is pertinent to point out that the government opted for it after considering and rejecting the idea of a cap which was found to be unworkable. A spokesman of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants said Mr. Woolas’ proposal would “drive a coach and horses” through the points regime.
Following the uproar, the Minister tried to retract his remarks, saying they were “misunderstood” but insisted that migration was an issue and, ironically, blamed his own government’s record in managing it though later he clarified that he had meant all successive governments, including Tory administrations. He said Britain was “about ten years behind” countries such as the Netherlands in tackling migration-related issues.
Mr Woolas’ assertions have represented, by far, the most hawkish ministerial intervention since the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, famously warned, in the wake of the July 7, 2005 London bombings, that “the rules of the games” for immigrants had changed. Oddly, his outburst came even as the government is patting itself on the back over the points system and immigration is already on the decline, according to the data relating to foreign workers who applied for National Insurance numbers to work in Britain this year. India is among the countries from where there were fewer migrants this year.
So, what is one to make of Mr. Woolas’ “confused and misguided” intervention, as the Left-wing Independent described it in an editorial? The newspaper’s own guess was two-fold: “A generous interpretation would be that, as Britain teeters on the brink of recession, he is trying to pre-empt the emergence of an ugly public mood towards migrants by reinforcing the message that the government has the situation firmly under control. A less generous interpretation would be that Mr. Woolas is playing politics with fear, at a time when governments everywhere ought to be behaving with extreme sensitivity.”
And, on balance, it suggested that the “less generous interpretation” seemed to be closer to the mark. On the other side of the ideological divide, a prominent Times columnist appeared to agree branding the Minister’s remarks “posturing” to “placate white voters.”
Nobody has alleged that Mr. Woolas’ remarks were racially motivated but for a Minister, especially a savvy politician like him, to pretend that they would not feed into racist propaganda in a climate where migration and race are invariably mentioned in the same breath is plainly disingenuous. Come to think of it, even the BNP claims that its demand that all immigrants be sent back to their own countries is not racially motivated. There is nothing wrong in having a debate on the pros and cons of immigration (after all, it is every country’s sovereign right to decide its immigration-levels) but, given the sensitivities on the issue, it is important to avoid language that could be construed as casting immigrants as the “enemy within.” “In the name of having a debate we should not turn it into an open season on those who are legally settled in Britain,” one analyst said.
Just as it is wrong to read racial connotations in any criticism of immigration, it is insensitive to treat it as some sort of a Third World epidemic threatening to devour Britain as Mr. Woolas suggested when he said: “We’re the fourth-richest country. Even with a recession we’re still going to be attractive to people from poorer countries. The urgency [to sort the system out] becomes greater.”
Meanwhile, there are fears that as recession starts to bite and unemployment soars, hostility towards immigrants is likely to increase not just in Britain but across Europe. Rights campaigners say that in difficult economic situations, it is always those seen as “outsiders” who are the first casualty as, indeed Mr. Woolas appeared to mean when he argued that “clearly if people are being made unemployed, then the question of immigration becomes extremely thorny.”
Already, the mood in some countries has started to turn ugly and in recent weeks there have been a number of attacks on immigrants in Italy with African migrants being accused of “stealing” Italian jobs. “Immigrants are becoming the enemy. With an economic crisis under way, Italy has found a scapegoat to blame its woes on,” Italy’s only black MP Jean-Leonard Touadi said after a spate of attacks on immigrants.
In such a climate, it is important that responsible politicians mind their language. Britain’s biggest trade union, Unite, has appealed to politicians not to raise divisive issues in these “turbulent times.” But few seriously believe that they are likely to give up a vote-catching issue easily.
6 months ago