It’s been a busy week in the immigration debate that has been steadily gaining momentum in the UK over the last months. What started as a timidly-voiced fear of a Romanian and Bulgarian influx last year has now turned into the next big thing in electioneering. Everybody’s got something to say about immigrants, and most of it is scary. What’s missing is the loud voice of protest against the rhetoric almost all political parties are now using.
I am one of the many EU citizens making use of our guaranteed freedom of movement within the member states, as well as the UK’s relaxed immigration laws. In 2004, when the majority of Eastern European states joined the EU, the United Kingdom was one of three countries which did not apply temporary labour market restrictions on the citizens of those states. What followed was a large wave of immigration, mostly from Poland. When the Polish economy picked up a few years later, many Poles went back home, but many stayed on. What has developed into an ironic spot-the-Pole game for me and my husband (hint: you don’t have to wait long before you spot one) has undeniably put pressure on the British system.
According to the latest census, Polish is now the second-biggest language in the UK. The influence of the Poles (and the often ignored Czechs, Slovaks, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Slovenians and Hungarians) is clearly visible in Britain, with shops, community centres, and added foreign foods on supermarket shelves making town centres look ever more diverse. In other, more rural areas, the contrast is perhaps more striking, and the strain on health and education resources is clearly felt within their respective systems. But for me, and almost everyone I know, this wave of immigration merely meant new foods and new friends. In the 9 years I’ve been in Liverpool, I have never encountered open hostility towards Eastern European immigrants. The fact that they don’t look very foreign is a big factor, of course, and my immediate social circle is by no means your typical English community. For years, Polish plumbers enjoyed an excellent reputation, and we all had cute Polish babies (who are not necessarily plumber-related, I hasten to add!).
And then the Daily Mail noticed the Roma setting up camp in a small-town park.
When somebody noticed that Romania and Bulgaria were about to join the EU (and these kinds of things always seem to come as a complete surprise), panic spread. Suddenly, everyone had witnessed a large Roma family causing trouble in a quiet street.
Yet with all the debates, and the frightening statistics, nobody dares to single out Roma people. This is problematic, because clearly, a Romanian person is no different from a Pole serving in a restaurant or working in a factory. Your average non-Roma Romanian now arrives in the UK with the national opinion squarely biased against him. Then again, maybe a country that has all but ghettoized an entire people deserves such a backlash in public opinion.
Whatever view you take, there are no winners in this story. Officially, it’s the sheer number of unskilled workers we should be afraid of, people not afraid to work for low wages, or claiming benefits, as is their right as EU citizens. And these next two years, with a European Parliament election and a General Election coming up, are crucial, if appropriate action is to be taken.
I see the point, I do. Whatever my personal experience, large waves of immigration are problematic, and they would be for even a bigger country than the UK. There isn’t unlimited space, there aren’t enough schools, and the health system is about to collapse. People are frightened of change. What annoys me about all this is that everyone’s behaving like it came as a big surprise.
It didn’t. Britain joined the EU knowing full well that there would be an expansion. They accepted the rules, which have always included free movement. They relaxed the labour market rules when other countries tightened them. Babies are born four years before they start school, so when birth figures indicated a baby boom in those early years, did nobody think about planning for more schools? And as for the suddenly overstretched National Health Service, why not start registering residents like pretty much any other country does, instead of relying an a census every ten years to get an idea of how many people there are in this country? There have been immigrants before. It’s nothing new.
So what’s happening now? Britain wants to leave the EU. Well, no, but we are told that the people deserve a referendum on whether they want to leave the EU. The people are of course informed by the press, and there isn’t a paper these days that doesn’t share problematic immigration stories, or daily reminders of how the EU ruins it all for us. The Prime Minister has on several occasions voiced thinly veiled threats towards the EU, and they are getting steadily more annoyed.
It’s a wonder the EU works at all, with so many differing opinions from so many different countries. What people tend to forget is that the EU’s existence alone should give us hope. A continent that has seen two major wars in the last 100 years encouraging their states to work together, allowing its citizens to mingle freely, should be encouraged.
Within the country, the UK Independence Party has gained supporters and is scaring all the established parties. In order to compete with UKIP in the upcoming elections, the government are now making UKIP’s favourite subject, immigration, their own. And the results are scary in their harshness. UKIP (the UK Independence party) blames all the country’s problems on anyone who arrived after 2004 and doesn’t want anyone else to come. The government wants to change the laws to stop new immigrants from claiming benefits (a move that distracts nicely from the fact that they don’t really want to give benefits to anyone anymore). The Labour party, desperate for votes, are now apologising for everything while criticising the current government for not doing any better. Poland is annoyed for being singled out in this debate (Sorry! I love you guys!). The Guardian, at least, puts some more thought into it.
And I’m confused. I feel unwanted. It’s not keeping me awake at night yet, but I’m wondering. Other than my EU passport, I have no official document to prove that I’m here legally and have a right to stay indefinitely. Do I even want to stay in a country that seems to not want me at all? Would my daughter’s teacher rather teach a British child? Does my doctor think I’m wasting his time and resources? And does anybody care? The venom that’s being spit in some papers is shocking, but I have yet to hear from any of my immigrant friends. Maybe they are safe in the knowledge that they could just go home, and there’s no terror, war or starvation awaiting them. Maybe they suspect that it’ll all blow over after the election, and things will just go on like before. Or maybe they’re just silently worried like me.