Thousands gathered in London's Trafalgar Square to the integration of irregular immigrants



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Britain’s ‘irregular’ immigrants
demand integration in society

By Peter Michaels

16 May 2007: A very rainy Bank Holiday in central London. People motivated to give up their time in the hope of inspiring a debate about immigration. If I told friends I was going to spend my day marching past the national war memorial on Whitehall amid an array of British flags then they’d probably, and understandably, assume I’d taken leave of my senses and was taking part in a Nazi skinhead parade. However, the presence of samba rhythms and pro-immigration banners would alter such preconceptions considerably.

Britain’s Strangers into Citizens campaign effectively became a movement when thousands of stateless migrants gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square to demand dignity and equality through regularisation in recognition of their contribution to the economy and society.

Strangers into Citizens is campaigning for a one-off amnesty for those it argues are law-abiding and tax-providing workers who have irregular immigration status. They may have entered the country on a tourist visa or had their claim for asylum denied. Such a scheme would involve initial registration, proof of continuous employment and no law-breaking and then automatic citizenship after a defined period of two years. It cites regularisation programmes in Spain, Italy, Greece, the Netherlands and Germany as evidence that their proposal is both viable and necessary. The Institute for Public Policy Research, generally regarded as supportive of the Labour government, has also proposed that this could come on-stream alongside the mandatory introduction of identity cards for foreign residents in 2008.

The economics all point in the right direction for the campaign – the government’s own figures suggest that the cost in lost tax revenues by not incorporating migrant workers into our tax base runs at £3.3bn, though their presence ends up costing the tax-payer regardless. Based on the current numbers of those here alone, it would take 25 years and cost billions of pounds to forcibly remove every irregular migrant from the UK, assuming none also entered during that time. Even among the governing Labour Party, politicians at national and local level argue that recognising irregular migrants as part of the legitimate population figures would ease pressure on public services by diverting resources to where they can be most legitimately justified. For instance, the Mayor of Newham Robin Wales argues that the high volume of irregular migrants in his London borough causes a disparity in the allocation of national government resources caused between real and official population figures.

Firstly, some background on the situation in the UK. The campaign estimates that there are around 500,000 illegal, or ‘irregular’, migrants in the UK, though the alarmist figures of the anti-immigration Migration Watch claim that 800,000 or more is nearer the mark. Many of these are forced to use false documents and exist in a stateless void. Immigration often sets the tone for elections in the UK. In the 2005 General Election, the Conservative Party, under the lacklustre Michael Howard, fought a desperate campaign masterminded by Australian right-wing strategist Lynton Crosby, based solely around a ‘dog whistle’ anti-immigration platform with the slogan ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’ It’s an emotive issue, spurred on by the tabloid press, whose predictable outrage over the march demonstrates how easy it is for the non-migrant population to be corralled into prejudice, even during record levels of employment and rising wages. That is not to label the public’s concerns as illegitimate but ill-founded all the same.

While the immigration issue is always regarded as emotive, the case against the status quo is equally as so. The case for freer immigration is based on three interlocked tenets of freedom, opportunity and the enrichment of society. Why should the well-off elite be able to freely travel around the world while that right is denied to the poor, who are expected to remain where they were born, regardless of any arguments of fairness or the laws of economics? Regardless of the immigration system, those seeking a better life will always gravitate towards societies that can provide it, in the same way that those living in the countryside will often prefer to try their luck in the city. An immigration regime based on perverse disincentive merely flies in the face of human nature. Similarly, those immigrants already here, such as those marching in Trafalgar Square, already provide the labour force the market requires but at the same time are denied access to healthcare when they fall sick or the law in cases of violence against their person.

Within the UK economy, freer immigration is supported by both the trade union movement through the Trades Union Congress, in presence on the May march, and business via the Confederation of British Industry. Both appreciate the economic benefits of migration, somewhat challenging the view that immigrants pose a threat to British jobs. Recent economic success has been fuelled by the availability of a flexible labour force to sustain it in the absence of British workers to perform many low-skill roles, though the morality is somewhat skewed by the absence of rights for such workers. Immigrant workers provide a knock-on benefit as well – more builders equals more trade for building material suppliers and designers. The fact that the health service would collapse without immigrant workers is acknowledged even by the UK government, as hostile as it remains to the idea of an amnesty (because of voters’ concerns), never mind freer immigration. Blaming migrant workers as an unjustified pressure on social infrastructure, as the UK government and the opposition Conservative Party often like to do, is rather like blaming tourists for overcrowding on public transport in London. As the recent experience of the ‘Return to Sender’ initiative in the US shows, migrants are merely considered as the junk-mail of globalisation.

Then there is the European experience. Both Spain and Italy have granted repeated amnesties over the past 20 years. In Italy, a 1988 amnesty allowed 119,000 foreigners to settle. When the exercise was repeated in 2002 the figure soared to 700,000. In Spain, figures rose from 44,000 in 1985 to 700,000 two years ago. Britain granted an informal amnesty in 2003 to certain categories of asylum-seeker families. The then Home Secretary predicted that around 14,000 families would qualify, allowing 50,000 people to settle legally in Britain.

The truth is that immigrants are already here in large numbers, directly and indirectly propping up all sectors of the economy and the process is irreversible, though their presence has been hugely beneficial in any case. These people create resource pressure in our cities, felt acutely in education, health and transport, though their irregular status prevents us from doing anything meaningful about it. A one-off amnesty will not satisfy all pro-immigration campaigners, who range from pro-globalisation commentator and economist Philippe LeGrain through to the far left anti-globalisation ‘No Borders’ campaigners. But it does represent a pragmatic step to restore dignity to an invisible but beneficial underclass that provide the backbone of many parts of the economy and allow them to make a fuller contribution as citizens of their adopted land, rather than a bank of easily expendable labourers. The samba drummers of Rio will soon make for a welcome and enriching addition to our own citizenry.


Illegal immigrants in Europe: Both Spain and Italy have granted repeated amnesties


On other pages
Neglected neighbourhoods create new Paris underclass
Between April and September 2005, three fires ravaged residential buildings in Paris, killing 48 African immigrants, primarily from Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire and Mali. Most of the victims were children; many were undocumented. The immigrants lived in cheap hotels and apartment houses ill-equipped for emergencies, lacking smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, emergency exits, and, in one case, even running water with which to put out the blaze. Some of the families had been placed in the substandard accommodations by social service agencies while waiting for their residency papers to be processed. Others entered the tenements on their own, squatting in the only shelter they could find.

For refugees from African slums seeking a better life in Europe, Paris offers little relief from the insecurity and destitution they experienced at home. Officials estimate that more than 200,000 people are homeless or living in temporary shelter in the city. Subsidized social housing units are scarce – in 2004, more than 100,000 families were on waiting lists for 12,000 available units. Some families languish in overcrowded and filthy provisional dwellings for 14 years or longer while they wait to be accommodated in social housing. Such long waits are not uncommon for immigrants. A government study found that nearly 30 per cent of immigrant applications had been pending for more than three years, two times the national average.

Although droit au logement, or the right to housing, is ensconced in French law, access to a decent, affordable place to live remains elusive for the lowest-income and minority residents. Legislation passed in 1991 requires that major cities dedicate 20 per cent of their housing stock to the social sector, but many contend that the law is not adequately enforced. Finding appropriate housing remains challenging even for families who can afford market rental rates. In 2002, the housing vacancy rate in Paris was 6.2 per cent, the lowest since the late 1960s. Those few units that are vacant tend to be substantially older than occupied ones. In the ageing and dilapidated buildings in which the fires occurred, only one exit was available – via the central wooden staircases, which burned quickly and left families stranded on the upper floors. More