When David Cameron came to power in 2010, he pledged to reduce net annual immigration into the UK to below 100,000. It is still running at over 200,000. More desperate people than ever pile up at Calais trying to get in, and the number of ‘illegal immigrants’ caught trying to enter Britain has quadrupled since 2010.
Concern over immigration – some of it understandable, some of it racist, much of it ill-informed – lies behind the rise of UKIP. But even if Nigel Farage and his friends came to power, would they be any more effective than the Tories at stemming the influx? Withdrawal from the EU might reduce the number of east Europeans arriving, though it would also mean taking back some of the expats who retired to the sunny half of Europe in the days when property there looked like a good investment. But the pressure from the millions of refugees and dispossessed who risk their savings and their lives crossing deserts and oceans to reach the eldorado that we in the industrialised countries take for granted is not going to fade away just because a demagogue is momentarily a darling of the hustings.
The root cause of the migration taking place across the world is the huge disparity of wealth between rich countries and poor. The disparity is easily traced back to the ‘great divergance’ when European nations became far richer than everyone else by colonising much of the world and developing fossil fuel energy. Their vast wealth was built on stolen resources, and largely processed by forced labour which often required shipping people around the world. Nowadays many people ship themselves voluntarily, but the inequalities are greater than ever, and so are the movements.
When, during the 20th century, citizens united in a failed attempt to create a fairer world through the socialist international, the capitalist countries vaunted their privileged lifestyle from the other side of the Iron Curtain. ‘Come and join us,’ they beckoned – without explaining that the flipside of the capitalist wealth was the misery of those in the global south who produced it. Socialist governments introduced measures to prevent their citizens emigrating, but this only enabled western countries to portray themselves as bastions of liberty.
What rejoicing there was when the Berlin Wall came down! ‘Welcome to the west,’ the capitalists cried, and the EU was expanded eastwards at breakneck speed. Two decades later, populist politicians in the UK are chasing cheap votes by loudly proclaiming that liberated citizens of those former socialist countries should stay at home.
Population movements certainly bring changes, some welcome and some less so. If it is true that immigration is changing British culture, that may be the price Britain has to pay for having pillaged so many other countries. But in many ways, British culture (whatever that is) is greatly enriched by new arrivals.
The only way to reduce the flow of immigrants will be to rid the world of economic and social injustice. Enabling immigration is one way of achieving this – not least because the remittances that immigrants, be they Romanians or Rwandans, send back to their home countries, dwarf the miserable amounts many rich countries donate in aid. Welcoming immigrants is perhaps Britain’s best chance of paying back the debt it owes to the rest of the world.