LONDON – The flood of refugees into Europe has been significantly augmented by economic migrants, mainly from Africa, purporting to be refugees. Economic migrants come from developing countries and are attracted by higher wages and the greater prosperity of European states. The number of such migrants also reflects growing population pressures in Africa.
Increasing numbers of migrants and the threats from Islamic extremism have aroused popular fears that migrants are stealing jobs, undermining wages and social stability.
Populist politicians such as U.S. President Donald Trump and Brexiters in Britain exaggerate these dangers. In America and Britain record numbers are in employment and unemployment figures (4.8 percent) suggest that there is near full employment in both countries. But there are some places in the rust belt in the United States and former mining areas in Britain where industrial decline has heightened perceptions of a threat from immigration.
Another argument against immigration is that it leads to falls in living standards in countries receiving immigrants as immigrants are prepared to work for lower wages than those demanded by native workers. This does sometimes happen but can be mitigated if minimum wage regulations are applied and people smugglers and their gang-masters are targeted.
Resentment against immigrants is more often aroused by cultural differences and linguistic problems. Some people, especially those of limited education and intelligence, have inherited prejudices which at times amount to anti-foreign bigotry. Skin color, clothing especially the full veil worn by some Muslims, poor table manners (or lack of them) can all arouse antipathy. But inability to communicate effectively in the language of the host country is the most frequent source of misunderstanding.
Hostility to immigrants may also be caused by a feeling that the host country’s institutions are being misused especially if immigrants are suspected of taking unfair advantage of welfare and health facilities for which they have not contributed through taxes or charges. Poor immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria have for instance been found begging on London streets and sending their “earnings” from begging to fund their families back in Romania.
For many years British government put their faith in multiculturalism under which immigrants were encouraged to maintain their native customs while adapting to life in Britain. The emphasis is now more of integration and education in British values and traditions, but with some communities this has so far had only limited success.
Britain, unlike France with its emphasis on secular education and banning religious education in schools, has always allowed schools sponsored by a particular religion. Some of the oldest schools in Britain were established by the Church of England. Muslim schools have also been established in recent years. The government have tried to ensure that any such schools funded by the state cater for children of all faiths or none. But this policy has only had limited success and some Muslim schools for instance in Birmingham have been accused of misusing their position to promote Islam.
Britain since the end of World War II has attracted significant numbers of immigrants. They came initially from the West Indies and the Indian sub-continent to fill jobs in the reconstruction of a war damaged economy. Some became bus drivers, other worked in the building industry, but their children, educated in Britain, became British in outlook and performed jobs of all kinds. In the 1960s Britain had a moral obligation to take in Asians expelled from former British colonies in East Africa.
The newcomers wanted to bring their relatives to live with them and at first there were few restrictions. As a result there are significant clusters in Britain of Hindus and Sikhs as well as Muslims and West Indian Rastafarians.
As a member of the European Union, the British government was keen to see the union expand to include the countries of Eastern Europe when they were liberated from Soviet control. Unlike some other West European countries Britain did not seek temporary limits on immigrants from these new member states. Britain welcomed what came to be termed the “Polish plumber phenomenon.” Polish communities sprang up in parts of Britain and Polish shops developed to meet Polish demands.
The Conservative Party, which includes in its ranks some people who dislike “abroad” and think that everything British must be best, have long suffered from an anti-immigrant neuralgia. They accordingly promised to bring immigrant numbers down.
Despite various restrictive measures adopted by the Home Office led by Theresa May, now the prime minister, the number of immigrants continued to grow. The populist anti-EU media pinned the blame with little justification on the EU and its adherence to the principle of freedom of movement within the area of the EU single market.
The generally accepted view is that the Brexiters won the referendum of last June because of the problem of immigration. This is almost certainly an exaggeration but in the campaign many lies were peddled and there was no informed discussion of the benefits from immigration.
The Brexiters argue that they seek free trade away from the “yoke” of the EU when they can limit immigration from the union. But there has been no discussion of whether free trade can be achieved without freedom of movement.
The British government has already admitted that Britain will face dire problems if it can no longer rely on immigrants from Europe to provide staff for the National Health Service and care homes. Its horticultural industry could also be wiped out if seasonal workers were no longer available from the EU.
By targeting immigration control as one of the prime aims of Brexit, the British government may find that it has kicked an own goal.
Japan so far seems to have managed without significant immigration, but demographic trends suggest that this must change soon. Japanese leaders, however, aware of Japanese national sensitivities, have so far preferred to postpone the necessary decisions, leaving unpopular but necessary measures to their successors who may then discover that the action they take is too little and too late.
Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.
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