Jan 15, 2014

    Cameron's unwelcome stance on immigrants

    DURING a recent visit to my home town, Wroclaw, in Poland, I was out for a drink one evening with friends when someone said: "You are not from here."

    "What do you mean? I was born here," I said, surprised.

    "You speak Polish," said my interlocutor, "but there's something (different) about you."

    It left me wondering if I was in danger of becoming an immigrant in my own country. Or even whether I would discover - back home in London - that I wasn't really Polish any more.

    For migrants everywhere, the question of belonging is often fraught, sometimes vexing. Like many Poles, I am dismayed by British Prime Minister David Cameron's recent remarks on immigration.

    Britain's membership in the European Union meant that restrictions on the free movement of workers from newer member states Bulgaria and Romania were lifted on Jan 1. In response, Mr Cameron introduced a series of measures aimed at discouraging a fresh round of immigration.

    "The hard-working British public are rightly concerned that migrants do not come here to exploit our public services and our benefits system," he said last month.

    And he told the BBC last week: "There are other European countries which, like me, think it's wrong that someone from Poland who comes here, who works hard - and I am absolutely all in favour of that - but I don't think we should be paying child benefit to (his) family back at home in Poland."

    I began to wonder where this sudden hostility towards immigrants in his words came from.

    Back in 2003, I relocated to London for love, rather than the promise of earning more money than I could make in Poland.

    In that respect, perhaps, I was unrepresentative of the majority of Poles who emmigrated after Poland joined the EU in 2004, yet I took my part in what has become Britain's second-largest immigrant group (after Indians). Recent data from the Office for National Statistics reveals that 521,000 Poles now live there.

    In London, the most ethnically diverse city in Britain, 37 per cent of residents were born abroad; more than 300 languages are spoken.

    For middle-class Britons, the Polish influx was generally welcome. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the Camerons themselves had employed a proverbial "Polish plumber" - and marvelled at the quick work and modest charge.

    But it is no secret that the post-2004 immigration did, in some places, have an impact on low-paying jobs, driving hourly rates down, especially in industries like construction or in the service sector. The situation has only got worse since the recession.

    "You see a truck with immigrants arriving and they will work for £5 (S$10) an hour, with no experience or papers. What am I to do?" asked a British friend who is a certified carpenter, yet struggles to find enough work.

    With the British economy still striving to recover, the complex issue of immigration for such a small island will inevitably worry many.

    It's no secret that Mr Cameron's Conservative Party faces a tough fight before next year's general election. The surge of support for the right-wing populist UK Independence Party is surely on his mind. What better way to win back lost voters than to demonise immigrants - even if that means conveniently putting aside the facts.

    According to the migration-research unit of University College London, "the recent immigrants were 45 per cent less likely to receive state benefits or tax credits than British natives over the 2000-2011 period".

    People from the European Economic Area also pay about 34 per cent more in taxes than they receive in benefits, and have made a staggering net contribution of £25 billion to Britain's public finances.

    Of course, every country has the right to control its borders and the flow of immigration. But inciting fear about immigrants is a cheap, and scary, practice. Mr Cameron should beware the damage it will do to Britain and its international standing.