Immigration has always been a contentious issue in British polity, with public opinion neither completely for it nor against it. The nature and complexion of immigration to the UK has undergone a radical change since the economic integration of European nations and the enacting of common European Union laws. Ever since the New Labour ascended to power under the leadership of Tony Blair, the British government has been confronted with the challenging task of pleasing its indigenous people while not affronting immigrants. This essay will assess the immigration situation in the UK and what can be expected of the recent and proposed policy changes in this area.
If we accept the precept that public opinion is a driving force for policy changes, then the outlook for immigrants does not look promising. A survey conducted by Channel4’s Dispatches, in collaboration with YouGov titled ‘The survey for Immigration: The Inconvenient Truth’ has thrown light on some surprising facts. A majority of participants are of the view that immigrants contribute to “diluting our culture and leading to the breakdown of society”. More importantly, 58 percent of settled migrants are of the view that the United Kingdom is facing a ‘population crises’. Indigenous Britons are more apprehensive about the economic implication of the foreign influx believing that ‘their jobs’ are usurped by the immigrants. More than three fourths of those interviewed want stricter controls for immigration while some even stating that the government should do away with immigration altogether. The rest of the survey is consistent with this trend and there is public opposition of varying degrees to unfettered immigration into the United Kingdom. It is no surprise then that the New Labour rhetoric over the last few years has undergone a transition. From being leading promoters of ethnic and cultural diversity, the government has turned toward garnering voter support, as its attitude toward some Eastern European members of the EU shows.
The treatment meted out to immigrants fromBulgariaandRomania, after their accession to the EU, is a case in point. Following these two countries’ accession to the European Union on 1 of January, 2004, “the Home Office imposed heavy restrictions on the movement of low-skilled workers from these new EU countries into theUK” (Winder, 2004). Contrary to what Margaret Hodge, the MP for Barking, states in public forums, new immigrants in general and from these two nations in particular are assimilating into the “growing shadow population of illegals in the United Kingdom” (O’Neill, 2007). Homeless Link, a charity that provides for homeless people, has stated in its report that a significant proportion of the 5,000 odd homeless in theUK(who take refuge from the elements in day centres and night shelters) are eastern European émigrés. This number has been on an upward trend and given New Labour’s refusal to take strong political positions and implement laws to legitimately accommodate them, the future does look bleak for these immigrants, as the following passage suggests.
“The Home Office’s attempt to limit the flow of immigrants fromRomaniaandBulgariahas given rise to a new layer of second-class Europeans: people who, despite being fellow citizens of the EU, are forced to sneak in to theUK, where their ill-defined status leaves them open to being exploited. In order to ‘manage the flow of new workers’ fromRomaniaandBulgaria, the government severely limited the right of the low-skilled to come here”. (O’Neill, 2007)
Some political commentators have pointed out how such differential treatment of émigrés has undermined the purported economic consolidation within the European Union and made a “mockery of the ideal of free movement of labour in a united Europe” (Cohen, 2005). There is also bad news in store for Asylum-seekers, as they are denied housing and other benefits until “they have been granted leave to remain” (Cohen, 2005). As a result of this restriction, the number of asylum seekers who are accommodated in UK is less than 5,000 in each of the last three years. Studies have also shown that only a small number of immigrants to the UK get accommodated in social housing. Immigrants are almost always disadvantaged against the locals due to an unfair points-based system that the government employs to allocate houses. For example, “demographically, immigrants who come to the UK to work are likely to be young, single and without dependents–all factors that place them firmly in a low-priority group; 82 per cent of accession immigrants registered for work in the UK since May 2004 have been aged between 18 and 34, and 93 per cent stated that they had no dependents” (O’Neill, 2007).
As more pressure is put on the New Labour government, now under the stewardship of Gordon Brown, to address the issues pertaining to immigration, a crucial distinction need to be made. Immigrants to the UK can be classified broadly under four categories – highly skilled workers, relatives of citizens, asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. The UK has shortages in skilled professionals in the field of healthcare, business and other services. So the government has devised a quota system to fulfill shortages. Each year the number of work permits issued is adjusted to meet the changing demands. The immigrants of second and third categories, while not contributing to the UK economy, need to be accommodated on grounds of fairness and justice. But the biggest headache to the government has been illegal immigrants. Studies have indicated that there could be as many as 400,000 illegal immigrants infiltrating into theUKevery year. They have been accommodated by the thriving black-economy, which exploits their cheap labour. Consequently, the government finds itself in a difficult position. But in spite of its official rhetoric in favour of multiculturalism and social integration, there can be no decisive action on part of the government, for