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Immigration – the myths being spread to divide us

This article is over 14 years, 3 months old
Ken Olende takes on the hysteria in the press and puts the case for working class unity
Issue 2190
Contrary to what tabloid newspapers say, immigrants come to Britain to work, not claim benefits. This graph shows net migration falling as unemployment rises  (Figures: Office for National Statistics)
Contrary to what tabloid newspapers say, immigrants come to Britain to work, not claim benefits. This graph shows net migration falling as unemployment rises (Figures: Office for National Statistics)

Politicians and the right wing press have unleashed a torrent of abuse against immigrants.

The attacks are accelerating and getting nastier, encouraging people who want to whip up racism.

A column by Trevor Kavanagh in the Sun newspaper last week was typical of the way statistics can be manipulated. He wrote that recent immigration “was a grotesque exercise in social engineering which has transformed and in some ways put at risk the way we live.

“So today we see the seething resentment of British voters – including established migrants – towards those they blame for taking their jobs, living off benefits they haven’t paid for… and threatening to harm the very country that provides them with a home.”

Socialist Worker tackles some of the key myths about immigration.

Myth – Immigration leads to unemployment

It’s the booms and slumps in capitalism that cause unemployment, not immigration. Immigrants didn’t demand the closure of the Redcar steel plant or push through tens of thousands of job losses in manufacturing.

There are a million more people unemployed in Britain today than there were two years ago. That’s not because of a surge in immigration, it’s because the system across the world went into deep crisis, and bosses and bankers expected workers to pay the price.

The graph on this page shows the number of people unemployed in Britain and net migration. They go in completely opposite directions! When unemployment was at its highest in 1992 more people left the country than came here. Then, as unemployment begins to fall, a few more people are encouraged to come to Britain. But as unemployment rises the level of migration drops off.

The worst ever level of unemployment in Britain was in the 1930s. But immigration was only a few tens of thousands a year.

The reason for the recent increase in immigration was the entry of several eastern European countries into the European Union (EU) in 2004 – known as the “A8”.

The vast majority of new workers are from these “A8” countries. They came here because there were lots of job opportunities, and many left once these dried up.

Last week the press was full of outraged stories about how three English councils – Peterborough, Slough and Boston – were complaining that they could not cope with a flood of immigrants draining their resources.

A rather more sober piece in the Financial Times pointed out: “All three councils were at pains to point out that they welcomed immigration, which had boosted local economies.”

The councils’ gripe is that they are not getting the share of central government funding due to councils with a changing population demographic. They are not complaining about the immigration itself, which has created wealth.

And council services will be far harder hit by the cuts that are coming than any immigration effect.

Myth – Britain is overcrowded

Britain’s population is around 61 million. There are scare stories of it rising to 70 million – with the implication that this would mean we would be “swamped”.

In fact from 1971 to 2004, ­population growth in the UK ranks 31 out of 38 European and other large nations for which data are available.

In this period the population of Britain grew by about 7 percent. For comparison, in the same period the US grew by 42 percent, Japan by 21 percent, China by 52 percent and the population of India doubled.

There is not a fixed cake of British wealth where less will go to people already resident if new people arrive. It is people working and using their skills that create the wealth.

Strangely, many of those who go on about the costs of immigration also say the country cannot afford to give people decent pensions because there aren’t going to be enough people of working age around. Both arguments can’t be true.

The only way for non-EU citizens to get in is as refugees or asylum seekers. The right wing media likes to make a big issue of illegal immigrants coming in via Calais.

Every study has shown that this small number of people are coming here to work, and that they tend to come from countries directly affected by British foreign policy. It is not a coincidence that most come from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Myth – Our services are being swamped

Far from being a burden on the welfare state, there are large areas of the health service, and transport that would collapse without workers from abroad. Not long ago councils were complaining about having to close schools and having no one to look after old people as those born between the 1950s and 1960s aged.

About a fifth of the people who do the vital job of caring for our older people were born abroad.

A quarter of British nurses were born abroad – half in London. Without these people the NHS would fall apart. It’s not true that there would be a sudden surge of “indigenous” workers to fill the gap.

And while they staff public services, immigrants are more likely to be single and of working age than the population in general – and consequently depend less on public services such as healthcare.

Myth – Migrants cause the housing crisis

There has never been as much housing in Britain as there is now. There are two bedrooms for every person in this country.

The real problem is that the rich have got huge houses – and second and third houses – because housing is distributed according to what people can afford, not what they need.

There are nearly a million empty properties in Britain. Most of them are private sector homes that can’t be sold at a profit because of the recession.

There are over 650,000 empty homes in England alone (including 1,798 in Barking and Dagenham).

It would cost about £1.5 billion to bring 250,000 homes back into use, which would also create 65,000 jobs. That sum is nothing compared to the amount handed to the bankers, or poured into the bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the £100 billion for Trident nuclear weapons replacement.

The housing problems stem from the control by private developers and landlords of the housing market and the collapse of council house building.

Myth – It’s not racist to be anti-migrant

Immigration rules and the way in which they are implemented are racist. They are directed against black people far more than white people. Half of the Nigerians who overstay their visas are pursued by what is now the UK Borders Agency, but only one in 50 Australians are persued.

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.

Every group of migrants to Britain have faced racism – from the Irish to the Jews, to people from the Caribbean to Asians and east Europeans.

But even when these groups settle in and are partially accepted, attacks on new immigrants spill over into attacks on all Asian and black people, whether they were born here or not.

Fact – Divisions will weaken us all

Bosses and bankers want working people to squabble among themselves rather than turn their fire on the real enemy – the rich.

A recent equalities report shows that a tiny 1 percent of people in Britain take home more than £2,000 a week – and the gap between rich and poor is growing.

Working people need unity to fight the attacks now, the avalanche of cuts after the election, and hundreds of thousands more job losses.

If our rulers can get us to think that immigrants are the problem, then they will escape with their wealth and power intact.

It is true that there is a lack of affordable housing in Britain. Young people do have far too few opportunities. But it’s not the fault of immigrants.

The NHS is always stretched and sometimes grossly inadequate. And working people are insecure about their jobs, get too little money and have to work far too hard for the pittance they get.

But it’s not the fault of immigrants.

A united working class has the power to save jobs, win decent pay and conditions, and defend public services.

That means rejecting the lies about immigration and the racism and hatred of Muslims which so many politicians and newspapers are now peddling. We shouldn’t let them divide and rule us. We should hit back together.

This is the first in a series of Socialist Worker articles that will look at the arguments around immigration in the run-up to the general election

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