As of New Years’ Day 2014, restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian citizens’ right to live and work in the UK were lifted, ending the temporary measures that had required employers to apply for a work permit for such workers, and for workers to apply for a Work Accession Card. Much of the discussion of this issue has, however, descended into stigmatization and increasingly sensationalist rhetoric which provides a troubling paradigm of the age-old process of scapegoating and demonization of minorities in times of economic decline.
Trevor Kavanagh’s article published in The Sun on the 29th December is indicative of such vehement protectionism with little basis in fact: he predicts a ‘tidal wave’ of immigrants heading to the UK ,in a usage of traditionally racist rhetoric echoed by Nigel Farage’s anxieties about a ‘Romanian crime-wave’. Kavanagh’s piece is indicative of several trends in anti-immigration sentiment: inflation and biased presentation of statistics, largely groundless accusations of ‘benefit tourism’, a harnessing of the issue for perpetuation of racist stereotypes, and an exaggeration of the extent of projected arrivals. While the right-wing media provides the most extreme examples of such feeling, the attitude is equally pervasive in mainstream politics. A letter to the Prime Minister signed by ninety senior Conservatives attempted to block the lifting of restrictions; the Government has introduced broad restrictions of immigrant access to welfare, while Labour ministers such as Yvette Cooper and Lawrence Danson have concurred in a need for tighter immigration control.
The immigration myth that can be most equivocally expelled by an examination of statistics is that of benefit tourism; Kavanagh expounds the popular view that ‘Britain’s welfare state makes us a magnet’. This is a view that the government is increasingly keen to endorse as part of a broader justification for privatisation and cutbacks to a welfare system that apparently lends itself to exploitation and ‘scrounging.’ The most recent statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions indicate that as of February 2011 there were 5.5 million people claiming working-age benefits. Of these, 6.4%, or 371,000 of these were foreign nationals when they first came to the UK. However, the study is problematic in that of the remaining 6.4% more than half later became British nationals, so that they are entitled to exactly the same rights as UK-born citizens; another study found that immigrants were ‘60% less likely than natives to receive state benefits or tax credits’. The government’s introduction of measures such as a three-month wait for housing benefit and a suspension of these benefits after a six-month period even when earned will further reduce the minimal impact that immigrants will have on the welfare system. In addition, Jeremy Hunt’s proposed introduction of charges for NHS services will further increase the burden on migrants.
The projected figures for the expected ‘flood’ of immigrants have ranged from Migration Matters Trust’s prediction of a peak at 40,000 over a two-year period to Eurosceptic Tory MPs’ prophecies of 400,000 in a comparable period. There are several reasons why such a surge in numbers is unlikely to take place. Despite nominal restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian workers, according to UK labour market statistics there were 121,500 working in the UK last month. The restrictions make relatively minor alterations to the process of applying for work for new migrants, and therefore it does not follow that there will be a dramatic increase in numbers. Tory MP Philip Hollobone recently demonstrated the contradictory attitudes of the right in stating that ‘The alarming thing is that even before the borders are flung open, we’re already above a quarter of a million’, maintaining the probability of a surge while simultaneously demonstrating that there will be no changes to the system so fundamental as to draw large numbers who had previously been excluded. Commentators have been quick to draw parallels with the mass arrival of Polish immigrants to the UK after 2004, after the expansion of the EU: however, this is a further convenient manipulation of fact. In the former case, only the UK, Ireland and Sweden lifted all restrictions, in a much more fundamental amendment of immigrants’ rights. In 2014 eight other EU countries besides Britain – including Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands- have lifted bans, so that the spread of migration will be more diffuse.
Public fears have been further fuelled by the troubling demonization of the Roma; despite comprising a very small proportion of the population of either country, lazy stereotypes of the community have been implied as representative of new arrivals as a whole. Kavanagh’s article, with an outrageous claim to authority, describes ‘Roma gypsies’ reputation for industrial-scale theft and begging’. Philippa Roe, a prominent Tory councillor for Westminster, similarly paints an arbitrarily conflated portrait of the Roma/Romanians who ‘come here to deliberately beg or aggressively pickpocket’, citing defecations on doorsteps as a legitimate problem in central London. (There were just two convictions for such incidents in the past year.) This has become such a notable phenomenon that the cross-party group for the protection of rights for travellers called for ‘an end to deliberately inflammatory language intended to stoke up community tension’.
Travel companies have thus far recorded no great ‘tidal wave’ of arrivals from Romania and Bulgaria. The apocalyptic prophesies of a Britain overrun by free-loading Eastern European criminals mask deeper social truths; fear is incited as a justification for ever more extreme cuts to public services and restriction of universal rights.