For many in Britain, the European Union’s cherished principle of free movement is perhaps the most controversial.
Net migration – thanks largely to the numbers coming from other EU countries – is tantamount to a new medium-sized city being built in the UK each year. Some say “we’re full up!”
Believe it or not, Britain once had a virtual open-door policy towards immigrants.
After World War II they began coming: from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent – but also from Europe: from Poland, Italy, France and Ireland.
One historian said more migrants arrived in Britain in the early sixties alone, than had previously disembarked in the whole of the 20th century.
They’ve not always been made welcome, but the UK has often been very happy to use their much-needed skills and labour – and this continued after the ex-communist states joined the EU.
Euronews went to London to get to the bottom of the great immigration debate.
In London’s Dalston, the population are as diverse as their opinions.
“They’re trying to change the face of England with immigration,” said UKIP voter Derek. “You go out to different places in the country and see it, how all of a sudden English people are becoming second-class citizens in their own homes.”
A British native with Caribbean roots, Kimo sees things differently.
“I believe the immigration debate is the promotion of politics of fear and division in this country and it serves no one political party any good,” he explained. “What makes this country unique and great is its ability to integrate people from all sectors of the world, all socio-economic backgrounds who all come together for the common good to make this country great.”
For others the question of immigration is a non-issue.
“Personally I don’t think I have been particularly affected by it. It’s something I don’t really think about,” said London resident Yetunde.
While another London resident, Mark thinks the debate is not as clear cut.
“I think its a good fix to say let’s get our workforce, we’ve got to keep our costs down for business, bring some people in who’ll work for a lower wage. But I don’t think the long-term has been thought through.”
In London euronews correspondent Joanna Gill asks whether, “immigration is an economic boon or burden? With increasing numbers of migrants coming to the UK the question has divided the country. We’re in London to get to the bottom of the great immigration debate and to put some faces to the figures.”
Jakub Krupa, (25) is a Polish citizen who’s been living in London for three years and also coordinates the Poles in the UK campaign . A graduate of the London School of Economics he now works as a journalist and PR person in the City of London. As a Polish citizen he is part of the largest group of migrants from the EU living in the UK. Much has been made in the tabloid media about Polish workers settling in Britain in recent years. This has also given fuel to the right-wing UKIP party who argue that the EU’s freedom of movement principle allows mass immigration with no control possible over the numbers and they are calling for Britain to leave the EU to end the influx. Ahead of the elections the debate on immigration has focused on the gains and drains the country.
To offer a counter argument to the negative images portrayed by some media outlets many migrants have taken it upon themselves to show how they chip in, and one way was to give blood via the controversially titled Bloody Foreigners campaign as Jakub explains.
“If someone comes here he is a bloody foreigner coming here, stealing jobs, things like that. Now we want to show it’s not only about that but it’s also about contributing in a positive way.”
This may be a dramatic way to make a point, but there is substance to the argument. Research from professors at London universities UCL and LSE shows that once the costs of government spending on migrants is calculated they actually generate £55 per second for the exchequer and as they are younger they are rejuvenating the ageing population.
Dr Carlos Vargas-Silva, Senior Researcher at Migration Observatory Oxford University explains that:
“Migrants tend to be young and they tend to come for work reasons, they tend to be in the workforce and to be working. So that means they make little use of public services and benefits and as a result they have a very positive contribution to the economy.”
But this is not the whole story. For British natives in low-skilled work, there is a small negative impact on wages and migrants could be edging them out of jobs. Equally with more people comes more pressure on public services especially in the densely populated south-east of England.
“One of the problems is just congestion, school places, the children whose first language is not English so you need different teachers to teach in the classes,” explained Dr Vargas-Silva. “You have the NHS (National Health Service) and all migrants have access to NHS services for free. So they are going to make use of this, so it may increase waiting times in different hospitals.”
For Jakub even this negative impact is a question of structural problems in public services rather than an effect of immigration.
“Obviously some people might be confused with migrants living around them building new shops, new places, speaking different languages but you need to explain to them the wider problems, that the problems with the NHS are structural problems, are not caused by the migrants, they’re just revealed by the migrants.”
Even with research showing a possible long-term impact on services, the figures show migrants are less dependent on state support than British born citizens. Since 2000, migrants were 43% less likely than native British citizens to receive benefits or tax credits and 7% less likely to live in social housing. With many migrants working in public services, they cost less to the public purse, and yet 77% of the British public want to see immigration reduced. Why the scepticism?
Fear inducing tabloid headlines coupled with the rise of UKIP has meant that one side of the debate has received more airtime. But even then the picture is skewed.
“In London people tend to favour immigration whereas in rural areas they tend to be more opposed,” explained Dr Vargas-Silva. “That means in the areas with more migrants there is a more positive view of migration, in areas with less migrants there’s more opposition.”
UKIP had hoped to capitalise on the deep divisions over immigration but the issue became less pressing as the campaign wore on. After rattling the political establishment coming first in European Elections in 2014, UKIP expected to feed off this success, but recent polls indicate that their road to Westminster may be rockier than predicted.