Britain is currently facing a flood of scare stories about immigration. These come not just from the Tory frontbench and the right wing “newspapers”, but also from supposedly “serious” news programmes such as the BBC’s Newsnight.
One recent furore concerned a statement by Dave Roberts, director of enforcement and removals at the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, that he didn’t have “the faintest idea” how many “illegal” immigrants were in the country.
David Cameron’s New Tories quickly joined in with the racist scaremongering. Shadow home secretary David Davis said the government has “no excuse for not tracking every one of these individuals until they are sure they are out of the country”.
The viciously anti-immigrant Daily Express described the movement of African people into Spain as an “armada”, and claimed the immigrants were planning to come to Britain.
The Labour government’s response to this racist campaign has not been to challenge the lies and distortions behind the headlines but rather to talk up its “tough” record on immigration and asylum.
The central thrust of the right wing arguments is that immigration is a bad thing. This notion rests upon a number of racist myths.
The favourite lie of anti-immigrant racists is that immigrants take jobs from British citizens. In reality, the British economy would be far weaker without the contribution made by generations of immigrants.
The National Health Service (NHS), for instance, could not have been built without the huge input of doctors, nurses and other medical and ancillary staff from the Caribbean, Asia and elsewhere.
In the early 1960s, Tory health minister Enoch Powell, who later became infamous for his anti-immigrant “rivers of blood” speech, encouraged immigration from the Caribbean to staff the NHS.
The British ruling class has always operated an “open door/closed door” approach to immigration, depending on what it perceives to be its economic interests at the time.
Consequently, some Tory governments have encouraged inward migration, while some Labour governments, not least Tony Blair’s administration, have brought in racist controls on immigration.
But Blair’s policies have more to do with placating right wing tabloids than with economics. Both the Financial Times and the Economist advocate more inward migration. They realise that Britain has an ageing population and needs immigrant workers.
New Labour is facing two ways at once on this question. Blair tells British workers that we must work longer before retirement, accept a declining state pension and take out private pensions so that big business can cut back on company schemes.
This, Blair says, is because we do not have a big enough working population to pay for a decent quality of life for pensioners.
Yet inward migration offers Britain a means of increasing the proportion of the population who are of working age.
In 2003, 84 percent of new immigrants were aged between 15 and 44. More than a fifth were taking up specific jobs, and over a quarter were students with college places.
Yet given the opportunity to welcome much needed workers from abroad, Blair throws economics out of the window and takes up the racist rhetoric of the right wing papers.
The scare stories over “illegal” immigration have become part of a generalised racist backlash against immigrants.
The debate over the government’s handling of the release of prisoners from overseas was full of lurid stories implying that immigrant criminals were somehow more dangerous than British convicts.
The possible entry of Romania and Bulgaria into the European Union (EU) has led to ludicrous stories about Britain being “flooded” with migrants from eastern Europe.
Even Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight repeated the suggestion that the entry of former Warsaw Pact countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic into the EU has led to 350,000 new immigrants.
In fact, this figure does not take into account the number of migrant workers who leave Britain. In 2004 (the year of EU enlargement), the net increase in migration from EU member states was 74,000, with eastern Europe accounting for less than 60,000 of these.
At the base of these panics and scare stories is the crudest form of racism. When the likes of the Daily Express and the Sun run anti-immigrant stories, they always stoke up the image of Britain being “flooded” by people from Africa, Asia or eastern Europe.
They never bleat about the thousands of whites from Australia, the US, Canada, South Africa or north western Europe who come to Britain to live and work.
The biggest immigration myth of all is that immigration causes racism. As we have seen in recent weeks, the increase in hatred and bigotry is not caused by immigrants – but by the right wing lies that are told about them.
Migrant workers are victims of neo-liberalism
When it comes to unregistered, so called “illegal” immigrants it is absurd to accuse them of taking jobs from British workers.
Unregistered migrant workers come here not to steal existing jobs, but to do the kind of work that the overwhelming majority of British workers are not prepared to do.
Take, for example, the cleaners arrested as “illegals” at the immigration service offices in London last week, or the 18 Chinese cockle pickers who tragically drowned in Morecambe Bay two years ago.
Such migrant workers operate in a legal limbo. Their employers exploit their “illegal” status to force upon them appalling levels of pay, dreadful living conditions and the sort of dangerous working conditions which led to the Morecambe Bay tragedy.
If the government “tracked” and deported all such migrant workers, as the Tories demand, a lot of Tory supporting employers would be squealing about the loss of a lucrative market in cheap labour.
Rather than talking “tough” about deportations, the Labour government should be moving to give unregistered migrant workers full legal recognition and protection.
That way migrant workers would be covered by legislation on the minimum wage, and health and safety – and future tragedies could be averted.
Another right wing myth is that immigrants come to Britain in order to live on state benefits. But people do not travel around the world in order to be unemployed.
Like the many thousands of British emigrants to countries such as Australia, Canada and the US, migrants to Britain come in order to find jobs.
All the evidence on “economic migration” – as opposed to the displacement of people by war, conflict or natural disasters – is that people migrate in the direction of available jobs, not in pursuit of unemployment benefit.
Blair’s policies are part of an effort by capitalism to ensure the free flow of profits while controlling the movement of people.
In the US, Bush panders to the racists by posing with immigration officers on the Mexican border. Moves by congress to criminalise unregistered migrants sparked the huge strikes and protests that we have seen across the US in recent weeks.
Mark Brown is secretary of the Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees