Syrian and Iraqi refugees | Photo: Ggia | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0 | Cropped from original Syrian and Iraqi refugees | Photo: Ggia | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0 | Cropped from original

Both main parties are pandering to toxic anti-immigration views, while ignoring the realities of immigration and its contribution to society, argues Terina Hine

Anti-immigration rhetoric went into overdrive as the new migration figures were released this week. Net migration hit a record high in 2022 at 606,000, an increase of 24% with the highest number of immigrants now coming from non-EU countries: India, Nigeria, Ukraine and China. Perhaps not quite what Farage and the Tory right had in mind when they talked of taking back control of Britain’s borders.

The figures have caused a crisis in government. Bringing down migration and ‘controlling our borders’ was a major manifesto pledge, and predictably the right of the party is furious. So too is Tory nemesis Nigel Farage who is so angered by the immigration levels and the Tories’ botched approach to Brexit that he is considering a return to frontline politics.

But the hysteria was not confined to the Tories or the former Ukip leader, Labour did its best to fuel the debate. Starmer was keen to join the anti-immigration chorus, lamenting at PMQs over the number of work visas issued last year and accusing the prime minister of having ‘lost control of immigration’. And Labour’s Yvette Cooper said the doubling of work visas showed the Conservatives had ‘no grip on immigration’. When asked if Labour was pro-migration on LBC she declined to answer three times.

Rather than welcoming migrants, both main parties, as well as right-wing disrupters, view immigration as a threat and problem. Encouraged by vile rhetoric in the media, the scapegoating of migrants and refugees goes unabated, regardless of the benefits immigration brings to the economy or the reasons behind its growth.

Realities of immigration

The Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, was keen to blame increasing numbers on students and their dependents, brought into the UK through a ‘back door’. But although more students may be coming to Britain, they leave post-study in bigger numbers than before, and while here, far from being a drain on resources, provide an economic boost worth £41.9 billion.

Many migrants enter through work visa schemes, granting visas based on occupational shortage lists. Derided by the right and the media, these immigrants are essential, not only providing much needed labour, but contributing to the UK’s tax revenue. Many are key workers. Health and social care visas rose by 171% last year. Given the crisis in the NHS, this is surely good news not bad.

The largest increase was from migrants arriving through humanitarian routes, mainly schemes for Ukrainians refugees and those coming from Hong Kong. This increase is expected to be temporary and due to the unique set of circumstances of the last year, most notably the war in Ukraine. The UK came late to the table with regard to its Ukrainian refugee scheme but it eventually allowed 168,700 Ukrainians into the UK. Refugees from elsewhere are not so lucky.

Up to 8,000 Afghans entitled to resettle in the UK are still waiting to come, despite the government admitting they are vulnerable to harm. Over 2,000 are still in Afghanistan at risk of torture or death while they wait, hoping the UK will get its act together. Figures released last week reveal only 3,167 Afghans were resettled from March 2022 to March 2023 under the Afghan resettlement scheme, a fall of more than 60% from the previous year. The scheme has been deemed ‘utterly broken’ by campaigners and refugee agencies. 

Railing against headline immigration figures is easy, but the reality is that emigrating to the UK is not. To come here, there is a minimum salary threshold of £26,500, and for refugees, most safe routes are closed. The most vulnerable are forced to enter through so called irregular means, then find themselves languishing in detention centres unable to work. Just 504 out of 40,444 small-boat arrivals who made an asylum claim in the year to March have received a decision on their status. And if the Illegal Migration Bill gets passed, ministers plan to remove 3,163 asylum seekers per month from January next year.

The PM along with the leader of the opposition want migration numbers to come down. But how and by how much neither will say. To pick a number is to play hostage to fortune. To reduce visas for skilled workers in a country with a shrinking workforce and an ageing population is economically illiterate. The majority of the public accept this reality. But it doesn’t stop the politicians playing the migration blame game: the fault of all the country’s woes lies with its immigrants. So they keep up the rhetoric and pander to the right.

With no one willing to challenge this racist narrative, and parts of the Tory Party fully embracing the culture war, the right are being allowed to re-ignite a nasty and dangerous immigration debate.

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