570,000 ‘illegal immigrants’: so what?
Britain is coping just fine with its new arrivals, and could take more still.
The UK government has finally come clean on illegal immigration. Right now, admits the Home Office, there are up to 570,000 illegals living in Britain. Which raises the question: what’s the problem? If there are half a million – one per cent of the population – and the country is coping just fine, why not take more?
This wasn’t the favoured response, though. ‘One in 100 is here illegally’, read the frontpage of the Daily Mail: ‘Are Home Office migrant figures still an underestimate?’ The Tories labelled it a ‘shocking indictment of the total shambles that is Labour’s immigration and asylum policy’.
The term ‘illegal immigrant’ implies a shady character, who might be into smuggling drugs or even children. Illegal is code for criminal, a corrupting influence on honest British communities. But the reality is very different: illegal immigrants are living and working in British towns and cities, and in many cases have been doing so for years. They could be Aussie students who overstayed their visas, the chef in your local Chinese restaurant, or African porters in hotels.
By and large, immigrants have slotted easily into British life, especially in big metropolitan centres like London and Manchester. In these cities, different communities interact freely every day and racial prejudice is lower than ever.
The sound and fury about the ‘immigration issue’ has nothing to do with real immigrants living in real cities. It is a projection of a whole host of social anxieties. Hence the resonance of illegal immigration, which by definition points to people we do not know about. It’s like a parody of the WMD debate: ‘How many weapons is Saddam hiding from us?’ becomes ‘How many immigrants are hiding from us?’. The latest figure was taken from census data, where the number of legal immigrants was subtracted from the total number of those who stated that they were born overseas. But commentators were wheeled out to say that there could actually be far, far more.
Critics argue that Tony Blair is ‘dodging the immigration issue’. But so are they. The discussion isn’t about the figures themselves – about how many really are living in Britain. Instead, the whole thing has become about Tony Blair: whether he lied to us in the past and whether his stats can be trusted now.
During the election, Blair was asked 20 times by BBC Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman how many illegal immigrants there were in the UK. ‘I can’t be sure’, Blair parried repeatedly. Now this study comes out, and everyone cries ‘Gotcha!’. Blair was trying to mislead us – how could he not have known? Shadow home secretary David Davis leapt on the attack: ‘This report shows unequivocally that the prime minister was wrong when he claimed it was impossible to know how many failed illegal immigrants there are in Britain.’ The Sun concurred: ‘It seems impossible to believe the Home Office only discovered the truth in the past two months.’
The government clearly doesn’t want to talk about immigration, though. Blair’s squirming interview said that, as did the fact that the Home Office didn’t put its latest report on the homepage of its website (though it did flag up its defensive response to critics). After the General Election, government minister Margaret Beckett claimed that immigration was one of the reasons Labour had done badly.
Why is it such a political hot potato? Less because of immigrants causing problems, than because of politicians’ fears about another section of the population – the Daily Mail– and Sun-reading white working class. Politicians feel that the British masses are a strange breed, like a tinderbox waiting for a spark. Any talk of immigrants, they suspect, is likely to set people off – and probably turn the whole lot of them over to the British National Party (BNP).
We should have no time for the government’s defensiveness, or the critics’ endless speculations. Instead, we need a debate about the reality of immigration, and life in Britain today. Should we relax border controls more? How are communities getting on in Britain’s cities? What kind of towns and cities do we want to live in?
We may decide that half a million isn’t so bad. Or even that we could do with a few more.
Immigration isn’t the issue, by Brendan O’Neill
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