Immigration and Covid-19: old myths are exposed

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أخر تحديث : vendredi 1 mai 2020 - 10:54
Immigration and Covid-19: old myths are exposed

Covid-19 has accomplished in weeks something that UK governments spent a decade failing to do. It has drastically cut labour migration. Lockdown prevents the gathering of real-time data, but it is a reasonable assumption when international travel has stopped that net migration is currently happening at a rate well below 100,000 per year

That was the target adopted by David Cameron in 2010 and pursued aggressively by Theresa May at the Home Office and in Downing Street. It was never met before being abandoned last year. What happens next is uncertain. This week would have seen the government’s post-Brexit immigration bill return to the Commons, but the timetable has been discarded, not least because parliament’s digital systems are not yet ready for remote voting

There is no indication that ministers are reconsidering the new regime, which is based on a points system designed to select “skilled” workers over “unskilled” labour. The distinction is meant to favour what ministers call “the best and brightest” while deterring those whom decades of political rhetoric have cast as undesirable. The charges against that latter group are various: poaching jobs from British-born citizens, depressing wages, failing to observe cultural norms and generally upsetting people with conspicuous otherness

The crisis has revealed how pointless and damaging it is for Britain to vilify immigrants who help keep the country afloat

The vilification reached its apogee in the campaign to take Britain out of the EU. The promise to “take back control” of borders had strong emotional appeal, but was never rooted in the reality of modern Britain, where migrants of all skill levels and income brackets keep the economic and social wheels turning. That awkward fact was always bound to emerge over time, but it has been revealed abruptly by the pandemic

Farmers are already warning that fruit will rot in the fields without seasonal labour normally provided by EU citizens. Attempts to entice UK workers to fill the gap are failing. Immigrants have kept public transport running, delivered goods and, most poignantly, kept the NHS and social care services operational. They have put their lives at risk for a country that has been, at best, ambivalent about their entitlement to live here at all

There is no longer an explicit commitment to make Britain a “hostile environment” for immigrants, but the apparatus of automatic suspicion and bureaucratic bullying developed under that rubric has not gone away. An appeal court this week upheld the law obliging landlords to check the immigration status of tenants, despite an earlier finding by the high court that the rules led to discrimination on racial grounds. Many immigrant workers, already in precarious employment or on visas that prohibit access to benefits, will suffer disproportionately from the economic impact of the pandemic

It would be shameful if the heroic contribution and sacrifices made by immigrants in these difficult times were met with callous ingratitude by the government. Fallacies and prejudices that have informed UK policy for a generation are being exposed by the current crisis. The debate has been oriented in entirely the wrong direction, with all the emphasis on a burden that should more rightly be understood as a blessing. It will not be easy to reverse that trend, but the opportunity is there if our politicians have the honesty and the courage to take it

The Guardian view

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