Brace yourself for more dire warnings about how Britain will be flooded next year by hordes of migrants from Bulgaria and Romania. This week’s story in The Times quotes figures from the Office for National Statistics which has calculated that 121,000 people from the two EU member states worked in Britain between July and September this year. The newspaper predicts that “thousands more are expected to head to Britain from January” – and quotes former home secretary David Blunkett predicting that riots would greet an “influx of Roma” to this country.
There is an obvious problem here: when we talk about “Roma”, it’s not clear who we mean. The UK has no distinct census category for them; while 57,000 people ticked the box marked “Gypsy/Traveller” in 2011, we have no way of knowing how many of those people might have been Roma from Central Europe. Many Roma will self-identify instead as Romanian, Bulgarian, Czech, or a different nationality. This leaves us to simply ascribe Roma identities to people we think fit the description. As a result, many estimates of the Roma population are based principally on highly inaccurate racial profiling.
This is indicative of the climate of fear that surrounds the “threat” of more East European immigration. Until a few years ago, few people in the UK knew much about Romanians or Bulgarians beyond post-Ceauşescu AIDS babies or cheap Black Sea holidays. Now we’re told to prepare not just for a new wave of Romanians and Bulgarians, but a new wave of crime that they will inevitably bring with them. Romanians and Bulgarians are the new unwanted children from the other side of Europe, who threaten not only to derail Britain’s fragile economic recovery but also to unravel the very cultural fabric that knits the country together.
Hordes, floods and swamps
Romanians and Bulgarian migrants are widely depicted as a nightmarish threat – as a horde of unscrupulous benefit scroungers waiting to flood in and take jobs from honest British workers while threatening our way of life.
This begs the question: how many is a horde? We don’t know. As Jack Straw’s comments in recent days have shown, predicting future patterns of immigration is a complex business. And even as Straw pointed to recent research which showed that Polish immigrants were less, not more, likely to claim benefits than UK citizens, his comments will only fuel grandiose predictions about the coming influx.
Nigel Farage, for his part, tells us we should expect “several hundred thousand”, echoing a BBC study which claimed 350,000 Romanians and Bulgarians could be “looking for work” in the UK next year. Meanwhile, official estimates of the numbers expected from Romania and Bulgaria predictably give much lower figures.
Most of these estimates, however, are highly problematic. Crucially, they privilege “push” factors (the notion that Romanians and Bulgarians want to leave home because the situation is so dire) over “pull” factors (the relative health of the economy in the UK), despite the fact that circumstances have dramatically changed since the mid-2000s: the million or so East Europeans who came to Britain after 2004 did so because there were lots of jobs available then. Given that far fewer are available now, we would surely expect fewer migrants to make the effort to come to try to get them.
But this remains a political numbers game: large, often inflated figures – presented with the help of liquid metaphors; floods, deluges, swamps, and streams – raise and amplify the scale of migration beyond our ability to rationally anticipate it and its consequences. Inaccurate and bloated predictions serve not to prepare us better for the arrival of new migrants but to redirect our attention to forestalling that arrival at any cost.
Evidence versus rhetoric
Back in 2007, Gordon Brown was quick to take a leaf out of the BNP playbook when he pronounced: “British jobs for British workers!” – ignoring that EU citizens have the same employment rights as British citizens. If we really want British jobs for British workers, we’ll have wait to to vote for them in the 2017 EU referendum.
Yet still, last year, the press jumped on a report of the Migration Advisory Committee which summarised an array of studies of the impact of migration on the labour market. A single one of those studies noted an “association” between non-EU migration and job losses for British workers; but that this single finding was in fact heavily qualified mattered not to the headlines.
The fact is that East Europeans filled a gap at the low end of the employment market in 2004 - and continue to do so.
Another argument has it that those immigrants who aren’t taking our jobs must be claiming our benefits. But again, as EU citizens, these migrants have a legal entitlement to benefits, just as Britons have in other EU countries. There is a lot of rhetoric about “benefit scrounging” and “benefit shopping”, but this rhetoric is rarely backed by evidence - and as Jack Straw himself mentioned, the evidence that exists points the other way entirely. In fact, while post-1999 immigrants from the EEA have been credited with a net contribution to the economy, Brits themselves received 11% more in benefits than they paid in taxes.
This evidence is consistent with the overall demographic profile of East European immigrants. They are disproportionately young, well-educated, and possessed of relevant skills – in other words, eminently employable. This is not the profile of a benefit scrounger; it’s the profile of a worker.
After the Queen’s speech last May, Cameron told MPs that he wanted to put an end to migrants coming to Britain and “expecting something for nothing”. For 10 years now, East Europeans have been taking jobs well below their qualifications, paying into the system more than they’ve been taking out and generally doing their share to help this country inch along through an anaemic economic recovery.
If anyone’s getting something for nothing, it would seem that it would be Mr Cameron.