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Anger over UK's tough new line on immigration

Strict targets on cuts in number of foreigners and a billboard campaign that warns 'Go home or face arrest' reveal hard times. Omar Karmi reports from London

LONDON // It was not the first time she had encountered hostility, but Zuzanna Petrikova was still shocked by its ferocity.

In February, Ms Petrikova attended a course at a local job centre along with 15 other women, almost all English, to improve her employment prospects. It was the first time in 19 years in the country that the trained nanny had gone without work.

"The instructor asked us why we were here, and the first girl to speak just went: 'I'm here because the [expletive] Eastern Europeans are stealing all the jobs."

"I was shocked," said Ms Petrikova, 35.

But she was not surprised. During her time in Britain, Ms Petrikova has seen the country go from one of the most welcoming to foreigners in Europe, to one in which the government has set strict targets to reduce the number of legal immigrants and granted stop-and-search powers to police to remove those suspected of having broken immigration rules.

Government-sponsored billboards driven around the capital, meanwhile, warn: "In the UK illlegally? Go home or face arrest."

And last week, in comments opposing British foreign aid, Godfrey Bloom, a member of the European Parliament for the Eurosceptic, hard-on-immigration UK Independence Party, UKIP, said the UK should not be sending money to "Bongo-Bongo Land".

Such a fevered public discourse around immigration and foreigners in general has moved observers to warn of social strife.

Last week, the heads of three prominent UK non-governmental organisations - Amnesty International, Refugee Action and Freedom From Torture - wrote an open letter describing recent government measures to curb illegal immigration as "heavy handed".

They cautioned that the wording used in the government-sponsored pilot billboard scheme - which many criticised for invoking language better associated with far-right groups such as the National Front - would "generate hostility and intolerance in our communities".

Such "hostile rhetoric", said Zoe Grumbridge, communications manager at Refugee Action, could undermine the "enormously complex" work with refugees, which demands a "safe environment" to encourage people to come forward.

Mr Bloom, meanwhile, retracted his "Bongo-Bongo Land" remark after being criticised as "racist" by some newspaper commentators, "offensive" by Labour politicians and "outdated" by members of his own party.

But a "blatant insult" aimed at Africans should also be seen in context, said Abdul Ghanem Yousef, 38, who owns a computer repair shop and internet cafe in South London.

"When you have billboards telling people to go home, you give legitimacy to the far right and those who want all immigrants to go home. It's very irresponsible."

Mr Yousef holds a master's degree in public health and worked for four years as a community development officer with the council of London's Lambeth district. He came to Britain in 1995 when doing so was "much easier", he said.

He said that with an economic downturn and the government caps on benefits, blame fell easily on immigrants as it "does everywhere". Sadly, he said, politicians were trying to capitalise.

Sounding tough on immigration is popular in Britain. UKIP proved that earlier this year when it secured the most votes of any fourth party in British local elections since the Second World War.

The Conservative party, the senior partner in Britain's governing coalition, ran and won in 2010 on a platform that included a pledge to dramatically cut immigration.

The government has said it would reduce net migration - the difference between immigration and emigration, which in the year to June last year was 162,000 - to less than 100,000 for non-EU-countries by the time of the next general election in 2015.

And even the opposition Labour Party has conceded that it "got immigration wrong" when it was in power.

During that period, 1997-2010, net migration went from 50,000 to more than 250,000. More than 3 million new immigrants settled in Britain during the decade starting in 2001, according to the Office of National Statistics' 2011 census.

Such rapid population growth, if continued, would have a "significant bearing" on Britain's public resources, said Alp Mehmet, vice chairman of Immigration Watch UK, a right-leaning think tank that advocates "moderate and managed" immigration into Britain.

But even advocates of more restrictive immigration rules concede that the government went too far with its billboard campaign, for which it is now being sued by one London civil-rights group and investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority.

And police stop-and-search powers have raised questions about racial profiling.

Mr Yousef said such powers would be bound to "disproportionately affect" Asians and Africans, who were more visible than Eastern Europeans and migrants from other "white countries", and "always bear the brunt of the blame".

But Britain is restricted in what it can do about immigration from the EU in which membership entails that people from nearly every EU country have the right to come and work in the UK, just as Britons have the right to work across the EU.

And even if less visible, Eastern Europeans suffer plenty at the moment, said Ms Petrikova, who otherwise shared with Mr Yousef the opinion that immigrants were sought after by employers because they were highly motivated and willing to work harder for less pay.

A mother of two, Ms Petrikova said she was now, in contrast to when she first came, wary of speaking in public places.

"If you are in the playground and you speak another language, people stare at you. I don't want everybody to judge my kids because they are Eastern European."

Back in February, Ms Petrikova had eventually confronted the hostile English girls at the job centre and extracted an apology. They were "not bad people", she said. But when "money is tight … everything is blamed on immigrants".

She added: "People think we are taking over. But we are not. We work hard and pay taxes. We are not doing anything wrong."

okarmi@thenational.ae

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