East European Immigrants in the UK: A Helping Hand, not a Burden

25 November 2013, 18:03

A new report by Britain’s Office for National Statistics says Britain’s population will rise to more than 70 million people in the next 15 years, a massive rise of more than 7 million people that will result largely from a huge new wave of immigration.

The figures have caused fear, alarm and resentment and have made immigration one of the most explosive political issues in Britain today. For the past five years, the influx of immigrants, especially from Eastern Europe, has been the main topic for right-wing politicians, who are calling almost every day on the Government to tighten curbs on immigration. The new figures project a British population of 70 million by 2027 and 73.3 million a decade later, an increase larger than the current population of London.

The figures come amid growing concern over the number of people likely to arrive from Bulgaria and Romania, when Britain opens its door in January to these two newest members of the European Union. The Government is now desperately trying to limit access by these newcomers – estimated to number about 50,000 a year for the next five years – to Britain’s free National Health Service and to social security benefits for the unemployed. But this is proving very difficult as it conflicts with Britain’s obligations under the EU treaties, and Brussels is threatening to take the British Government to court if it discriminates against migrants from Eastern Europe.

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So many migrants arrived after Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia and Slovakia joined the EU in 2004 that the Government lost track of them. Officials now admit that nearly half a million more settled in Britain than they had reckoned – and were not discovered until the census in 2011 showed the population was even bigger than estimated.

Britain has long been a magnet for immigrants. Partly this is because of the English language, which most people in Eastern Europe and also beyond the EU learn at school. Partly it is because Britain’s National Health Service has always allowed foreigners to be treated for free, like British citizens. And partly it is because the social security benefits and unemployment payments are seen as generous by people who earn far less money in their home countries.

As a result, Britain experienced a massive rise in the 1980s and 1990s in the number of people claiming political asylum – especially from Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflict zones – many of whom were in fact economic migrants rather than those suffering genuine political persecution. In response to growing popular unrest, successive Labour and Conservative governments have therefore tightened up the rules, making it far harder to claim political asylum and not allowing would-be refugees to take paid employment until their cases were resolved.

But while political asylum cases have fallen over the past decade, the number of people legally arriving to seek work has soared. This has presented the Government with a dilemma. Britain, like most West European nations, has an ageing population, and needs labour to pay for the rising pensions bill. And in an increasingly global economy Britain also needs the skills of highly educated doctors, engineers, computer specialists and other well-qualified people from developing nations such as India.

What has really embittered the debate, however, has been the sudden arrival of people from the new member states of the EU. This has coincided with a growing disillusion with EU membership among the British public, and the feeling that enlargement of the EU – which Britain long championed – has forced the country to accept millions of people who do not contribute to the economy.

Some of the figures underline the problem. A recent EU report, commissioned by Laszlo Andor, the EU commissioner in charge of employment and social inclusion, found that more that 600,000 unemployed EU migrants are living in Britain, at a cost of GBP 1.5bn to the National Health Service alone. The numbers, the study found, have risen sharply in the past five years. They show that 611,779 “non-active” migrants were living in Britain last year, a sharp rise on the total of 431,687 six years ago, and a figure equivalent to the population of Glasgow. In the three years up to 2011, the number of EU migrants coming to Britain without a job rose by 73%.

At the same time there has been a sharp rise in the number of East Europeans accused of fraud, pickpocketing, prostitution, human trafficking, bogus fraud claims and what has become known as “benefit tourism”. A recent court case detailed how a gang of Czech fraudsters attempted to make claims amounting to GBP 1mn for child tax credits and child benefits. Last summer Britain deported more than 60 Roma beggars from Romania, who had camped on the grass verges of Park Lane, the smartest street in West London, and were begging outside the top tourist hotels. Many accepted free passage to go back home, but most promptly returned to resume their begging a few weeks later. And some of those arriving from Russia, Albania and other European countries outside the EU have been deeply involved in criminal activities – from people trafficking to drugs gangs, prostitution and other criminal fraud schemes. Publicity for these cases has added to the popular perception that Britain is seen as a soft target by some criminals in the East.

It is not only migrants from the East who are adding to Britain’s population. The eurozone crisis has forced many people from Greece, Portugal and the Mediterranean countries to seek work in Britain. Some, indeed, have arrived with considerable sums of money. And as a result house prices, especially in London, have risen sharply, making it almost impossible for ordinary British first-time buyers to buy a property in central and outer London.

Why do the East Europeans attract so much attention? First, they come in much larger numbers than immigrants from developing nations. Secondly, many of them compete successfully for jobs which native Britons are reluctant to take or for which local people have fewer qualifications. And thirdly, the vast bulk of them arrive perfectly legally, unlike African migrants or people smuggled into Britain from China, Vietnam, India or Africa, most of whom are caught and sent back home.

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The growing outcry over immigration has had three dangerous effects. First, it has fuelled a nationalist and almost racist reaction to many foreigners, which is exploited by some right-wing politicians. Secondly it has made it very difficult nowadays to obtain a visa to Britain from outside the EU, deterring millions of Chinese visitors as well as students who would come to Britain to study if they could get a visa. And thirdly it conceals the very real benefits that immigration has brought to the British economy over the past two decades.

Various reports have shown that, far from being a burden, many immigrants work much harder than native Britons, contribute huge amounts in taxes, and actually add to employment opportunities throughout the country. The claim that many immigrants are “scroungers”, seeking to live on benefits, is not substantiated by the figures: of the 5.7 million adults in Britain claiming government benefits, only 371,000 were born elsewhere and of those just 62,000 were from the EU. A survey of 18 European countries between 1999 and 2007 found that as a percentage of GDP, Britain spent the third lowest amount of the 18 countries on benefits for immigrants.

The issue has become politically explosive, however, because immigrants tend to exaggerate income inequality in Britain. Some new arrivals, especially the well qualified, earn very large salaries; the majority of newcomers, however, are low-paid, and are seen as competitors to the large number of Britons thrown out of work during the recession or leaving school.

Finally, a fact overlooked by those complaining that Britain is already a small and overcrowded island unable to accommodate more people is that most immigrants from Eastern Europe do not intend to remain in Britain permanently. A huge number of Poles who arrived after 2004, but many returned home when the recession began and when conditions in Poland improved. And Britons themselves tend to emigrate – the country has the highest emigration rate in Europe after Spain. So it will take a while before the country is “swamped” by East Europeans. None of that, however, will calm the debate. The issue is likely to remain toxic to British politics for many years to come.

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