IMMIGRATION has been a highly emotive issue in British politics since Enoch Powell made his famous 1968 “rivers of blood” speech which sketched a picture of Britain inundated with immigrants.
Since then, the subject of immigration has remained firmly on the UK’s political agenda. In the ’80s and ’90s the issue acquired further prominence due to the influx of refugees fleeing dictatorships and civil wars; the result was an unprecedented raft of legislative proposals to placate right-wing tabloids that regularly framed the debate in negative terms.
During the last decade, six immigration bills have been introduced. Yet the perception fostered by the far-right has endured that not enough is being done to discourage immigrants. This deeply entrenched perception has driven the coalition government to lead a new, aggressive push.
Prime Minister David Cameron led the charge with his first major immigration policy speech in 2011. The speech was geared towards the goal of bringing the number of immigrants down drastically to the ’80s and ’90s levels. Not surprisingly, it was couched in terms of curbs and crackdowns on out-of-control immigration. In line with this new thinking, government agencies began a massive crackdown on plugging what they call the loopholes in the system.
In practice this has meant cuts on student, family reunion or family settlement visas and those for the highly skilled migrant scheme, apart from tightening asylum laws and increasing the deportation of illegal migrants. All these steps seemed to have contributed to bringing down the number to 163,000 last year.
However, despite the government’s effort to curtail the numbers, the immigration issue shows no signs of petering out, with the far-right escalating its rhetoric with every placatory move. In the face of growing hostility to immigrants, some political leaders have also joined the anti-immigration bandwagon — a trend termed as “the conspiracy of noise” by Observer columnist Andrew Rawnsley.
In December 2012, Labour leader Ed Miliband said that his party was wrong to ignore public concerns about the rising level of immigration. In March, Liberal leader Nick Clegg back-pedalled on his election manifesto of finding a decent route to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
This sudden burst of policy activity is spurred by three developments. First, the coalition government’s ideological drive to prune the welfare state by cutting public spending. Second, the continuing electoral fortunes of the UK Independence Party, as shown in its impressive performance in a by-election early this year. Third, the immediate prospect of Bulgarian and Romanian nationals — the newer European Union (EU) members — coming to Britain in search of jobs when the current restrictions are set to expire in December. The image of Bulgarians and Romanians flooding into Britain feeds into a long-standing media narrative that has constructed all immigrants as welfare scroungers and benefit tourists.
Last month, in a revisit of his 2011 speech, David Cameron pledged to act tough on new EU immigrants by restricting job-seekers’ allowance to a maximum of six months. He also announced restrictions on new immigrants accessing social housing. Further, teachers are going to be asked to identify the children of illegal immigrants. This extraordinary step has already attracted considerable opposition for fears that it might fall foul of the government’s international treaty obligations in relation to child rights.
The newly proposed measures fall in line with Europhobe attitudes taking root in the UK and the Conservative government’s increasingly strained relations with other EU countries. This was exposed when the EU employment commissioner, Laszlo Andor, told the Observer: “There is a serious risk of pandering to knee-jerk xenophobia. Blaming poor people or migrants for hardships at the time of economic crisis is not entirely unknown, but it is not intelligent politics.” Such sentiments have also been echoed by Lord Mandelson, an ex- EU commissioner.
At the same time, rumblings of discontent over the numbers-reducing policy are audible. British university leadership is already chafing under financial difficulties brought on by reduced state funding and falling foreign student numbers, the mainstay of a large number of universities.
The difficulties of the government are further compounded by the lacklustre performance of the United Kingdom Border Agency (UKBA). Set up in 2008, the UKBA was tasked with getting a grip on an immigration system in a shambles. It did not live up to its set targets, with a backlog of thousands of asylum and immigration cases. The agency was also criticised for long queues at airports. This barrage of criticism caused the departure of its chief executive Brodie Clark. Reacting to this sustained criticism Home Secretary Theresa May announced the dissolution of the agency.
This brings immigration policy under the thumb again of the Home Office. No one knows how the immigration policy is going to be fixed now that it’s back under full ministerial control of the Home Office. Already, there is a loud chorus building up among liberal and left-of-centre broadsheets that the immigration debate should be conducted on the basis of facts and not fiction.
Only by not making immigration a bidding war between different parties can this issue be sensibly handled; placing numbers at the heart of the immigration policy risks turning Britain into an illiberal place.
The writer is an Islamabad-based development consultant and policy analyst.