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Immigration Outrage in the UK

By Amanda Roth

Just over three weeks ago, the first Romanian migrant entered London’s Luton Airport, greeted by flashing cameras and journalists eager to interview one of the individuals whose arrival caused so much controversy. Beginning January 1, 2014, restrictions were lifted in the UK and other European countries, allowing nationals of Bulgaria and Romania to apply for work permits and move freely throughout the European Union.

The restrictions were put in place in 2007, when both countries joined the EU. Freedom of migration is a central pillar of EU integration, but existing member countries are allowed to limit entry of new member nationals for a maximum of seven years after admission. As the expiration drew near, media outlets and politicians became increasingly alarmist about the threat posed by the entry of thousands of new immigrants into the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and a number of other countries.

Anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise in the UK, where nearly three quarters of residents disapprove of current immigration levels. Prime Minister David Cameron promised earlier this year to curb the number of new migrants to the “tens of thousands,” as opposed to the current level of approximately 260,000 per year. And anti-immigration politicians and political parties are gaining an increasing voice in Great Britain and elsewhere across the continent.

Britain’s reaction to the Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants has been particularly strong for a number of historical and political reasons. But as politicians and media outlets attempt to embrace this populist sentiment, the country risks missing the chance for a meaningful conversation on the freedom of movement and the realities of pan-European migration.

In part, the response is rooted in historical experience. In 2004, Poland, the Czech Republic, and a number of other Eastern European countries joined the EU. The United Kingdom was one of only three member countries to allow migrants to enter immediately, without restrictions, and many flocked to Britain’s vibrant economy. The British Home Office estimated that approximately 5,000 to 10,000 individuals would arrive annually. Instead, nearly 600,000 immigrants arrived in Britain over the next two years.

The miscalculation became politically controversial.  Right-wing political groups fueled fears about overburdened social services and the imminent drain on welfare systems. Poles became the target of violence and political attacks. Former Home Secretary Jack Straw recently referred to the decision to admit Polish migrants without restriction as a “spectacular mistake.”

The specter of the 2004 experience is looming large as the UK adjusts to the idea of admitting Bulgarians and Romanians. The memory of the mass influx of Poles, notes Elizabeth Collett, Director at the Migration Policy Institute Europe, “has led to a widespread fear that once more the UK will experience higher-than-expected flows. In addition, a range of media and political actors have claimed that not only will a large number of Romanians and Bulgarians arrive, but they will attempt to defraud, or take advantage of, the British welfare system.”

Tabloids have warned of potential crime waves and a mass run on Britain’s welfare system. In the run-up to European Parliamentary Elections in May and general elections next year, politicians have proposed anti-immigrant laws that contradict EU regulations, such as charging non-British citizens for using the National Health Service and prohibiting immigrants from accessing unemployment for at least three months after arrival.

This narrative – that the lifted restrictions will lead to mass waves of immigrants who are seeking to take advantage of the stronger welfare systems in Western Europe – has gained traction in Germany and France as well as in Great Britain. In Germany, officials have warned of increasing “poverty migration,” and anti-immigrant language is a key part of the platform of conservative groups such as the Christian Social Union in Germany and Front National in France.

Yet this reaction obscures two critical facts. First, the large numbers of Polish and Czech immigrants that arrived throughout the last decade did not run the British economy into the ground. A 2013 report from the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration found that European Union immigrants contributed more to the economy than they collected in benefits, contrary to native-born citizens. On the whole, Polish immigrants were younger and more highly skilled than average citizens, and the majority found work in the UK.

Yes, the burden on benefit systems may increase somewhat as the new arrivals settle down, have children who attend schools and use social services, and eventually collect retirement benefits. But native-born Brits contribute to this problem too – an aging population is increasing spending on pensions and healthcare – and immigration may well be the best solution to the impact of a graying populations. Britain’s Office for Budget Responsibility has determined that current immigration levels must be sustained or increased to contribute to stable public finances.

This sustainability is part of the reason that free movement of people is one of the core tenets of EU policy, based on the assumption that unrestricted mobility improves economic outcomes throughout the continent. “Basically the problem of the EU has always been that people have not been mobile enough,” said Dr. Gianni D’Amato, Director of the Swiss Forum for Migration and Population Studies. “The EU is trying to copy the US experience, where if people cannot find work in one place, they go to another.”

The immigration controversy in Britain is intimately tied to the ongoing debate about European Union integration, which many residents continue to resist. Similar to immigration, the debate over UK participation is increasingly obscured by more extreme media outlets and political parties. The anti-EU and anti-immigration UK Independence Party, led by Nigel Farage, is gaining ground leading up to the coming elections. It surpassed the Conservative Party in recent polls, in part due to their strong stance against incoming EU migrants. Prime Minister Cameron has also proposed loosening ties to the Union in certain policy areas, including immigration and the environment, and promised to hold a national referendum on EU participation by 2017.

These developments make the need for a serious debate about EU immigration in Britain all the more critical. Increased immigration and further EU integration will continue to shape the UK and require social services to adjust to changing demand. But the political rhetoric has become so vitriolic that British politicians and media personalities have been more focused on loudly denouncing immigration rather than looking for ways to prepare for and capitalize on the possible arrival of labor from Eastern Europe. 

“Most European integration strategies for migrants are focused primarily on third country (non-EU) nationals rather than EU citizens,” notes Collett. Romanian and Bulgarian migrants, as they arrive, would likely benefit from support to help them integrate into the British labor market, such as language assistance and programs to help identify existing skills. Yet as Cameron and other politicians pledge to reduce immigration at any cost, there is no room for a public discussion on how to best leverage their potential contributions.

And the controversy is obscuring yet another fact – the migrants aren’t actually arriving by the thousands. In fact, as of January 14, less than two dozen new Romanian and Bulgarian entries were recorded—their compatriots kept away by the underwhelming economic growth and widely publicized racial antipathy awaiting them. Perhaps the journalists waiting at the airport should turn their attention to the political, economic, and social loss Great Britain will experience if it turns its back on the opportunity to have a productive conversation about immigration’s many benefits.

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Amanda Roth is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal. She is a current graduate student at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

[Photo courtesy of Christopher Ellison]

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