“In the U.K. illegally? Go home or face arrest.” This none-too-subtle message was posted on six vans that were driven around north London this past summer in an attempt to publicize the U.K. Home Office’s immigration policy. While the vans were only driven around for a week, they are still generating controversy as Prime Minister David Cameron promotes his plan to reduce European Union “benefit tourism” and to limit the number of citizens from new E.U. countries (Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania) who come to the U.K. in search of work.
Cameron’s call to limit the freedom of movement of E.U. citizens is part of a larger project to push for a 2017 referendum on whether the U.K. should remain in the E.U. at all. This referendum is predicted to be a key part of the Tory Prime Minister’s election bid in 2015, notes the Independent.
Currently, citizens from a European Economic Area — from one of the member countries of the European Union — “have the right not to be treated worse than a British citizen.” In some but not all cases, they may be able to claim benefits. Cameron’s call to curb how many benefits that migrants receive is, he says, meant to put the brakes on what he calls “welfare tourism,” to cut his country’s deficit and to “[turn] round the welfare system.”
Actually, Migrants From the E.U. Help the British Economy
For all that Cameron claims such limits are “absolutely vital,” there is only inufficient evidence that migrants to the U.K. are widely abusing the system.
A joint report by the Center for Economic and Business Research and global recruitment consultancy Harvey Nash has found that restricting freedom of movement within E.U. member countries could be harmful to the British economy, causing it to lose 2 percent of its GDP by 2050, a total of some 60 billion pounds.
While Cameron says that “there is a problem with people living [here in the U.K.] and not working,” the report found that migrants from the E.U. are more likely to be working and to be more productive than U.K. citizens:
… immigrant workers are more likely to be in work (63%) than UK-born citizens (56.2%) and are more economically active. It says British businesses rely heavily on immigrant workers. Between 2003 and 2013, the number of non-British EU-born citizens employed in the UK went up from 762,000 to 1,647,000.
Albert Ellis, chief executive of the Harvey Nash Group, said: “Non-UK EU-born workers are bringing much-needed skills and value to the UK and there is little evidence that EU immigrants are having a negative impact on wages or unemployment. In fact, immigrants are helping to create jobs. A broad and diverse labour market fuels growth, as this report shows.”
Addressing the concerns that Cameron and the U.K. Home Office have raised, the European commissioner for employment and social affairs, László Andor, underscored that “policy on labor migration within the EU is based on facts rather than gut feelings or perceptions.”
In addition, a committee from the House of Lords says that, after having made “several requests” to the government for evidence about the extent of the problem of migrants abusing benefits, it has so far “failed to offer anything more than anecdotal claims to back its assertion that ‘social benefit tourism’ is a real problem.”
British Public Wary About Immigration
Cameron’s plan to curb migrants’ benefits, and those vans telling immigrants to “go home,” reflects a deep skepticism about immigration in the British public, says the New Statesman. A recent report from the Migration Observatory at Oxford University that analyzed broadsheet and tabloid coverage of immigration for the past three years found that “illegal” was the most common word used to describe immigrants.
In fact, more than the French, the Italians and the Swedes (all of whom have similar or higher levels of immigration), the British are prone to overestimate the numbers of immigrants in their country. While most guess that it is 31 percent, the real figure is near 12 percent.
The New Statesman also points out that a “persistent distrust in the management of the immigration system” remains among U.K. citizens. One such reason stems from the revelation in July that the U.K.’s Office of National Statistics had discovered that, while the Labor party was in power from 1997 to 2010, about a half a million more immigrants arrived in the U.K. from the E.U. than had previously been reported. Not surprisingly, Cameron and his Tory government have been “keen to demonstrate [their] competence in this area” and show they can get tough on migrants.
If those vans with “go home or face arrest” are taken as a sign of that “competence,” the public has good reason to hold onto its skepticism. Whoever dreamed up the “go home” vans reportedly failed to first contact the French designer of the font used on the posters and purchase a license. The designer, Fabien Delage, has indicated that he is considering suing the U.K. government. Due to his font being used, Delage notes that he is now suspected of having something to do with a campaign that has been “unpopular abroad.”
The U.K.’s Home Office needs to get its own house in order before it goes further in placing restrictions on those who, in search of work where they can find it, have left their own homes far behind.
Photo from Thinkstock