Socialist Worker

Theresa May's racist scapegoating crashes into the reality of migration

by Dave Sewell
Issue No. 2569

Theresa May earlier this month

Theresa May earlier this month (Pic: Crown Copyright)

Official figures released in the last few days have underlined how the debate about migration is rooted in scaremongering and lies.

Net migration—the difference between the number of people arriving and the number leaving—has fallen by a quarter in just a year.

Net migration was 246,000 in the year to March, 81,000 fewer than the previous year.

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Figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show more European Union (EU) migrants leaving, and fewer people arriving across the board.

The number of EU citizens leaving went up by 33,000 to 122,000.

The most significant fall was among people from eastern Europe. From the EU8 group of eastern European countries, the number of new arrivals plummeted from 40,000 to just 7,000.

It’s hardly surprising that fewer people want to live and work in Britain.

Theresa May has refused to give EU citizens any guarantee that their rights will continue after Brexit.

All she has offered as prime minister is a continuation of the xenophobia, nationalism and repression that she enacted as home secretary.

Letters sent in error to up to 100 EU nationals telling them to leave the country within a month or face deportation or detention are symbolic of the atmosphere May has created.

Finnish academic Eva Holberg, who brought the letters to media attention, called it “surreal and absurd”. By the time the home office apologised she had incurred £3,800 in legal costs.

May would only say that the letters were an “unfortunate error”.

The British state is also locking up more European migrants. The number of EU citizens detained in detention centres is up 27 percent on last year, new figures reveal.

The increase may be largely down to new guidance to immigration cops saying they could detain and deport EU citizens for sleeping rough. During the six years May was home secretary the number of EU citizens detained each year increased from 768 to 4,699.

Non-EU migrants already face the repression that May is threatening to extend to EU migrants after Brexit.


Given all the scaremongering by May and other Tories about the supposed cost and “pressures” of migration, one would expect the decline to be good news for the economy.

But in reality migrant workers contribute an enormous source of wealth—their labour. So bosses’ groups and some Tories responded to the news by warning that business could soon face a labour shortage.

Seamus Nevin of the bosses’ Institute of Directors warned that “without the 3 million EU citizens living here the UK would have an acute labour shortage.”

“Signs that it is becoming a less attractive place to live and work are a concern,” he added.

That wasn’t the only headache the figures caused May.

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The number of international students fell by 27,000. Long-term immigration to study is the second-highest driver of migration.

May has previously fanned a scare that many students were overstaying their visas and remaining in Britain “illegally” after graduation.

But new exit checks—a survey of airports—by the ONS and Home Office suggested that 97 percent of foreign students leave in line with their visa conditions.

It found just 4,600 overstayers a year—a tiny fraction of the Home Office estimate of 100,000.

The huge difference exposed May as a liar or a fool. And it led to a slew of senior Tories to echo earlier calls for excluding international students from immigration figures.

The roll-call of those who’ve called for such a change now includes chancellor Philip Hammond, foreign secretary Boris Johnson, Scottish leader Ruth Davidson as well as former ministers George Osborne, Nicky Morgan and Bob Neill.

May has long paid more heed to the racist anti-immigration lobby, and has resisted removing students from immigration figures lest it accuse her of cheating.

But she has now had home secretary Amber Rudd commission a major review that could give her cover to change course.

The furore exposes how little the debate on immigration has to do with the reality. Politicians talk as if Britain is being swamped and overrun while in reality it struggles to attract enough workers.

But the drop is also a stark warning that May’s xenophobic turn is having an effect—and must be resisted.

EU nationals’ full rights and continuing freedom of movement have to be guaranteed now.

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