Look away now: a tale of British immigration

The feudal societies imported from Pakistan and Bangladesh throw up problems that no one wants to address

A week on, I am still digesting Ed Miliband’s apology for his party’s woeful underestimate of both the scale of immigration and public concern about it. Mr Miliband said that Labour had let too many immigrants from Eastern Europe into the country too quickly by lifting controls on the new EU member states before others did.

But Labour wasn’t just “insufficiently alive to the burdens” of ordinary people, as he claimed. It actively smeared many who voiced concerns. James Cameron, the envoy to Romania, and Steve Moxon, the civil servant who revealed that the Home Office was rubber-stamping bogus visa applications in 2004, were branded as racists. When Frank Field set up the Cross-Party Group on Balanced Migration in 2008, colleagues openly called him a racist. This column could be filled with the names of people who tried to express reasonable concerns — including social workers and policemen at the sharp end — and were silenced.

This censorship was aided by the misuse of statistics. When Westminster City Council and others asked for more money to run services because so many more people were registering with GPs and schools, the Government flatly denied the claims. When the campaign group Migration Watch predicted in 2002 that net immigration would reach two million over the coming decade (which has turned out to be an underestimate), it was attacked as “muddled”, “duplicitous” and worse.

The Home Office stuck to its notorious estimate that only 13,000 Eastern Europeans would move to Britain after EU enlargement, though more than a million had arrived by the end of 2009. When Labour left office, it was still basing its estimates of movements on the ONS Passenger Survey, a survey at ports and airports that is entirely voluntary. A government that wanted the truth would have done what the coalition is now doing: gathering data from councils and GPs and laboriously restoring border controls.

If Mr Miliband’s remarks are to usher in a new era of glasnost, he must recognise that the truth has been further hindered by the preference by all parties for couching immigration in terms of Eastern Europeans: a tradition he continued last week. The public is given the impression that nothing can be done because most people come here from the EU. But in fact the EU accounts for less than a quarter of the 3.5 million long-term immigrants who the Office for National Statistics says have come to the UK since 1997.

The focus on white Europeans also keeps issues about cultural differences at bay. For years the Labour MP Ann Cryer was simply ignored when she raised concerns about forced marriages and honour crimes. When I wrote in 2003 that some women in England were living in similar conditions to those I had witnessed as an aid worker in Bangladesh, but were further isolated by language, the Muslim Council of Britain put me on its watch list. Three years later the Blair Government dropped plans to ban forced marriage because the Muslim Council warned that doing so would “stigmatise communities”. These issues were to be hidden from public view: and damn the victims.

Brave campaigning by women such as Jasvinder Sanghera has helped to change this. But fear of offending racial sensibilities still makes the political class look away from one particular group of immigrants, from parts of Bangladesh and Pakistan — particularly Sylhet and Mirpur — which remains almost wholly segregated. In many of the places where people from these two regions come to live, more than 60 per cent would have to move house to achieve an even spread across their district. This is a very high score on what social scientists call the “index of dissimilarity”.

I have visited a British school where all the boys came from Mirpur, and the parents listened to the imam not the (white) headteacher. I have met health workers who are still struggling to persuade male relatives to let mothers attend clinics. I have met doctors who are seriously worried by the high incidence of birth defects among the Pakistani community in England, which they put down to the frequency of marriage between first cousins.

We have imported feudal societies into our midst but ignored the people trapped inside them. Fewer than one in four women from these communities have jobs. Many still do not speak English. Immigrants who cannot get jobs, or work only in one sector, will not integrate. Immigrants who cannot communicate will not integrate. The more relatives arrive, the larger these ghettos will become and the harder it will be to tear down the walls.

For the past eight years, polls have suggested that British alarm over immigration focuses on the sheer scale of the numbers; but there is also a feeling of unfairness about those who do not work, or do not integrate, but use public services. Polls by YouGov for Prospect magazine last month suggest that the tone of opinion is hardening: 54 per cent of those surveyed said that “all further immigration should be halted”; and 53 per cent said the worst thing about the UK was “the number of immigrants”, ahead of welfare scroungers and crime. These people cannot all be crazed members of the English Defence League.

In the Westminster village, people are getting het up about the possibility that top universities may be refused a visa for a top scientist (a problem which can surely be fixed). Outside the bubble, people worry about chain migration. They see extra doors appearing in semis in Hendon and elsewhere, hiding desperate people who are bunking up ten to a room. They want the Government to distinguish between hard-working foreigners and people who have little hope of making an economic contribution because they are illiterate in their own language.

Mr Miliband was right to call for more stringent enforcement of the minimum wage and laws against businesses employing illegal workers. But if he would talk about the disenfranchised people we have neither embraced nor rejected; if he would support the coalition’s efforts to tighten the rules; if he would stop implying that there is actually very little we can do; that would make his apology easier to swallow.

Ugh! Paywall alert – this is such a good article by Camilla Cavendish that I have posted the entire piece, it originally appeared in the Times.

h/t Anne

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