Britain Struggles to Cope With Wave of Immigration
Graham Lees | Bio | 04 Jan 2007
World Politics Watch Exclusive
MANCHESTER, England — In this gritty northern city once famous for its textile exports, two bus companies have had their operating licenses suspended for employing Polish drivers who cannot read English road signs. In the Romanian capital of Bucharest, a new bus station opened this week to cater for yet more people keen to travel to Eastern Europe's favorite destination.
As both Romania and Bulgaria became the European Union's newest members on Jan. 1, Britain braced for a new wave of immigration.
After the EU expanded eastwards in 2004, the London government hopelessly miscalculated the number of likely economic migrants looking for a better income in Britain than at home. Government agencies anticipated 13,000 people a year but now concede that about 600,000 East Europeans — the majority Poles — arrived in Britain between 2004 and 2006.
The government claims that most have taken jobs the British don't want to do, but evidence is emerging that cost-cutting companies are employing foreigners in place of native labor.
And critics argue that the country's infrastructure and social fabric is being undermined by the biggest wave of immigration since the Roman legions arrived over 2,000 years ago.
According to the independent watchdog Migrationwatch UK, Britain is now receiving an immigrant a minute.
Although the British government claims the critics are scaremongering, it has quietly been spending almost $600,000 on an advertising campaign in Romania and Bulgaria urging people to say put after their countries join the EU. And for the first time London has imposed work restrictions on EU countries — barring Romanians and Bulgarians from working in Britain without a permit. However, there is no restriction on entry and many are expected to enter and work illegally.
The chairman of Migrationwatch and former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Sir Andrew Green, said the government has begun reducing asylum admissions but added: “As a result of their 'no limits' policy, immigration as a whole has shot up. We now have a migrant arriving in the U.K. almost every minute — and these are just the legal ones we know about.”
Migrationwatch says the large inflows from Eastern Europe account for only about one in five foreign immigrants, while most of the rest came from Asia and Africa.
“They [the British government] have been trying their best to obscure what is really happening by pretending that this mass immigration is a success, even though it is the result of government miscalculation and neglect,” said Green. “But the strains in terms of schools, health and housing refuse to go away — not to mention the impact on the employment prospects of British people as the unemployment numbers steadily increase. These are conveniently airbrushed out of the picture.”
Migrationwatch, which includes the professor of demography at Oxford University, David Coleman, among its advisers, says it is not opposed to genuine refugees. But in a statement on its Web site the group argues that “nowadays they comprise only about 10 percent of those who arrive in Britain each year.”
Migrationwatch says current trends and official statistics indicate that Britain faces a net inflow of non-EU migrants totaling 2 million per decade.
Non-government organizations say the country, already the second most crowded in Europe after the Netherlands, cannot cope with such numbers and it could lead to a failure of integration and damage to the country's cultural and social fabric.
Demand for visas to enter Britain has gone up by more than 30 percent in the last five years and is now touching 2.5 million a year.
Migrationwatch and government figures show that Britain has 2.5 million people whose first language is not English. The Commission for Racial Equality is on record as saying Britain is “sleepwalking to segregation.”
The warnings are particularly alarming given the growth of Britain's Muslim population and signs of political disaffection by a new generation born in Britain to immigrant parents. In 2006, the name Mohammed was listed at 22nd in the country's roll call of most popular newborn boys' names — way above Michael.
A traditional weather vane of public opinion, the British national press, seems divided on the issue of immigration. The brash tabloid Daily Express newspaper this week ran a headline asking “Why are we giving away our country?” and railed against an immigration policy it said “looks like an attack on our way of life.” But The Times welcomed Romania and Bulgaria into the EU and suggested that Britain could benefit from a migration of farm labor and skilled doctors and nurses from the two countries.
However, evidence has emerged that Poles, for example, are being hired by construction companies in the greater London region because they accept lower wages than skilled British builders. One reputable company that employs only British labor told The Times it was being undercut in contract tendering by companies using cheap imported labor.
Poles have migrated to Britain in huge numbers and signs in Polish have sprung up in most major cities. In Manchester, two bus companies employing 100 Polish drivers were ordered off the roads at the end of December by a government traffic commissioner after a series of serious accidents thought to be related to language problems and lack of training.
Migationwatch's Green has said: “Language is absolutely vital to integration. It is a serious indictment of multiculturalism that we should now find that we have one million of working age who need help with their English.”
The government has said it believes that immigration benefits the national economy. Immigrationwatch agrees but adds the caveat that with rising population costs the benefits to the host population are small, a matter of a few cents per person a week.
Green's group also says that against the benefits there is disturbing large-scale population change. In the last decade, it claims, 600,000 Londoners have left the city to be replaced by 700,000 immigrants.
“This is changing the whole nature of London and other major cities. This outflow of people is higher from boroughs with large ethnic minorities.”
The Commission for Racial Equality recently expressed concern that a number of major British cities will be reduced to a minority white population by 2016.
But the London-based independent Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants recently produced a report alleging that British immigration policy was unfair and discriminated against the poor from non-EU countries The Council says Britain should “be promoting a system that facilitates migration from the global south, and the effective integration of these migrants into UK society through guaranteeing a minimum level of rights for them, such as a route to settlement, family reunion, and employment protection.”
This idea seems not to suit at least some native Britons. The Guardian national newspaper reported at the end of 2006 it had discovered that the anti-immigration nationalist British National Party is beginning to attract respectable middle class members, including businesspeople, as it bids to shake off its image of being an extremist, Nazi-like street-rabble organization. The BNP currently holds only a few dozen local government council seats across the country — mainly in areas of high immigrant populations — but is said to be bidding to win places on the Greater London Assembly and even parliament.
But as foreigners queue to move into Britain, an increasing number of British are moving out. According to the National Statistics Office, 120,000 British citizens emigrated in 2004 and another 198,000 in 2005. Australia, Spain and France were the top destinations.
Graham Lees is a Bangkok-based British journalist who has worked in several countries in East Asia over the past ten years covering regional business and political affairs.