x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Open-door policy is more profitable for UK than restrictions

Immigration is not a threat to the UK; it has brought the country a wealth of ideas, money, skills and hard work.

The right-wing press in Britain has been drip-feeding scare stories about immigration, Muslims and benefit fraud for so long that people appear to actually believe them.

A survey released last month by the Royal Statistical Society showed that Britons have a wildly distorted view of key social and political questions in their own country. Asked how many Muslims now live in Britain, the public averaged an answer of 24 per cent. The actual figure is five per cent.

Asked for the overall number of immigrants in the country, the response was two to three times the reality. The public overestimated the amount of government money wasted on fraudulent benefit claims by an astonishing 34 times.

These are not just honest misunderstandings. The public's ignorance has been deliberately cultivated by a tabloid press that knows fear-mongering about immigrants and indignation over welfare cheats (and preferably both at once) sells papers. One of the most noxious undercurrents to this trend has been the Islamophobia that prevails across much of the British press. At one level, British fears about Islam are easy to understand. For many Britons, their only knowledge of the religion comes from the mouths of extremists spouting a disturbing and distorted view of the faith on the evening news.

But rather than put these unpleasant individuals in context, the British tabloid press relishes extremists for the fear and anger they can provoke in their readers. Just last month, The Sun used this trick in response to the news that a TV station, Channel Four, would be playing the Muslim call to prayer during the month of Ramadan. The Sun, which keeps a list of inflammatory radical clerics on hand for just such occasions, managed to find one who said this could be the first step towards Sharia law in the UK, and another who said: "Islam is the fastest growing ideology in this country - by some accounts Britain could be a Muslim country by 2015." The article did not mention the actual number of Muslims in the country.

These baseless statements were designed to stoke anger and fear in Middle England by presenting Muslims as a threat to their way of life. Having recently travelled through Germany and visited some museums related to the Holocaust, I was struck by some of the parallels between early Nazi propaganda against the Jews and the way Muslims are depicted in the UK today.

Fortunately, these attitudes towards Muslims are not reflected in government policy - UK politics rarely lends itself to overt fanatics and racists. Yet, on the broader question of immigration, the government under prime minister David Cameron seems willing to shoot itself in the foot to appease the ill-founded concerns of voters.

The British public has been led to believe that endless hordes of foreigners are flooding into the country, taking their jobs and exploiting their generous welfare benefits.

The UK Independence Party, previously on the fringe of national politics, is pushing its way into the mainstream by stoking resentment of immigrants. It won a quarter of the votes at local elections in May.

This has scared the conservative-led government into a series of anti-immigrant policies to reduce annual immigration from 240,000 when it took power in 2011 to less than 100,000 by 2015.

On both a moral and practical level, such policies are misguided. British history makes any opposition to immigration morally indefensible. For centuries, its empire sucked resources out of huge swathes of the world, growing rich and powerful in the process and creating the channels that continue to bring foreigners to its shores. Today's Britons who shout their anger over immigration do not seem to mind living off the proceeds of their country's violent imperial past.

Even on a practical level, the government's attack on immigration is self-defeating. Since Britain is not permitted to turn away migrants from the European Union, it has been forced to target other groups in a way that threatens its economy and international relations. Among the most targeted are foreign students. Last year, they were barred from taking part-time jobs and now have only four months, instead of two years, to find employment after completing their studies if they want to stay in the UK.

The government has touted this as a success - the number of non-EU students has dropped by 56,000 in the past year. But discouraging the world's best and brightest young people from coming to your country is a bizarre sort of victory.

A new immigration bill also aims to restrict access to health care, legal aid and even driving licences for new arrivals. Recently, the government announced that citizens from certain African and Asian nations would have to obtain a refundable £3,000 (Dh16,750) "security bond" before coming to the UK.

Such moves may play well at home but they play very badly abroad. India's citizens, for instance, will be included in the security bond scheme - not a good way to win favour with the country that Mr Cameron has touted as the great shining hope for UK trade.

Immigration is not a threat to the UK. Although there are plenty of examples of people who come simply to sponge off its welfare system, these are dwarfed by the wealth of ideas, money, skills and hard work that immigration has provided. Stand anywhere in the centre of London and you will see faces from every corner of the globe - it is this cosmopolitanism that has maintained Britain's position as a key global hub even as the country's overall status has declined.

Politics has a short memory, but a little less pandering to ignorance and prejudice, and a little more effort to realise Britain's historical responsibilities and the practical benefits of open borders will be crucial to the country's future.

 

Eric Randolph is a freelance journalist and security analyst covering Asia

On Twitter: @EricWRandolph