Britain: Immigration Seen as Top Problem by Soeren Kern

January 23, 2013
There are roughly 863,000 people living illegally in Britain, of whom 604,000 (70%) live in London. — London School of Economics

Britons' view immigration as the biggest problem facing their society, according to a flurry of new surveys and research reports about the current state of affairs in Britain.

Taken together, the data highlights the widening gulf between the views of British voters, who are increasingly skeptical about uncontrolled immigration and the dangerous divisions it is creating in their society, and those of the governing elite who run the country, many of whom remain committed to the idea of building a multicultural society.

A new report, "State of the Nation: Where is Bittersweet Britain Heading?," shows that one in three Britons believes that tension between immigrants and people born in Britain is the primary cause of conflict in the country, and well over half regard it as one of the top three causes.

The survey, conducted by the Ipsos MORI research firm and published by the London-based think tank British Future on January 14, also shows that respect for the law, for the freedom of speech of others, and an ability to speak English are viewed as the three most essential traits of being a Briton.

In addition, the report shows that a high proportion of British voters are pessimistic about the British economy (50%), and three-fourths believe there is a severe housing shortage, due in large measure to uncontrolled immigration. More than half (56%) say the current economic crisis will leave Britain weaker for years to come and nearly half (46%) say Britain is heading in the wrong direction.

The findings mirror the results of the British Social Attitudes Survey, an official study conducted annually, which polls Britons on their attitudes about a number of social issues.

The 2012 edition of the survey shows that Britons are far more strongly opposed to immigration, particularly from Muslim countries, than they have been at any time in recent memory. The document states that 75% of Britons would like to see a reduction in immigration, and that 51% would like to see a large reduction. Moreover, 52% of respondents believe that immigration has a negative economic impact, and 48% believe that it has a negative cultural impact.

The report notes: "The period since the late-1990s has seen the largest inflow of immigrants to Britain in history…. A decade of high migration levels, and prominent political debates about the effects of immigration, have not been well-received by the British public. Despite the hard economic times, it also seems that it is concerns about culture which have risen the most over the decade."

The survey also shows that negative sentiment about immigration is not limited to the white British majority population: over one quarter of first and second generation migrants believe that mass immigration has had a negative impact on British society.

A separate report, "Practical Measures for Reducing Irregular Migration," written by researchers at the London School of Economics (LSE), estimates there are roughly 863,000 people living illegally in Britain, of whom 604,000 (70%) live in London.

The LSE report says that it is, by definition, hard to be exact about the numbers involved. Illegal residents comprise those who entered the country illegally and those who have overstayed, having entered legally. The authors of the report believe that the majority of illegal residents fall into the latter category.

Over the past two decades, those entering the country have exceeded those leaving by more than 100,000 in every year since 1998.

Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to get net migration -- the difference between the number of people entering Britain and those leaving -- down to the "tens of thousands" before the general election in May 2015.

Despite repeated pledges to reduce immigration, in practice Cameron has found it difficult to take meaningful steps to address the issue. Although the Conservative half of his coalition government is solidly in favor of reducing immigration, the Liberal Democrat half is not. As a result, the government has been effectively paralyzed in taking forceful action on the issue.

Data released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in November 2012 showed that net migration fell to 183,000 in the 12 months leading to March 2012, down from 242,000 the previous year -- but nowhere near the targets that have been set by Cameron.

A new study, "Migration Review 2012/13," produced by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), predicts that net migration will fall to 140,000 in 2013, but will then rise again in 2014 as the government runs out of options for restricting the number of foreign nationals entering Britain.

All sides agree that the current decline in net migration is being driven by lower numbers of international students from outside the European Union (EU).

The issue of students from outside the EU is currently a hot topic in Britain, with increasing concern about the numbers of foreign students who study and then do not leave.

According to MigrationWatch UK, an independent think tank that focuses on immigration and asylum issues, about 250,000 foreign students from outside the EU arrive every year to study in Britain. About one in five stays on legally after completing all studies and becomes a long-term immigrant, while the others return home. But because there are no exit checks, the number who actually left the country is unknown. It is believed that those who stay illegally far outnumber those who stay legally.

In September 2012, the British government announced that the ONS would begin counting non-EU students as immigrants as part of an effort to keep closer tabs foreigners entering and leaving the country.

A recent poll commissioned by MigrationWatch shows that 70% of those surveyed believe there should be a limit on the number of foreign students admitted to Britain.

The survey shows strong support from across the political spectrum for a limit: 70% of Conservatives, 66% of Labour and 57% of Liberal Democrats are in favor of a limit. The strongest support is in Scotland at 76%, while the lowest is in London at 62%. Women are more likely than men to favor a limit by 74% to 67%.

The poll also shows strong support for action against bogus students, whose real motive is to work illegally and send money home. Of those surveyed, 70% say that those found to have insufficient English for their courses should be deported; 84% believe that those found to be working rather than studying should be deported; and 87% think that those who overstay their visas after their courses have finished should be deported.

A recent crackdown on foreign students has led to British border agents conducting interviews with student-visa applicants from "high-risk" countries. In addition, a new inspection regime to ensure that colleges are legitimate has already led to the closure of more than 100 bogus schools.

But the government has also faced criticism for damaging business and universities by making it harder for non-EU nationals to come to Britain to study.

British Immigration Minister Mark Harper has blamed the immigration problems on the previous Labour government, in power between 1997 and 2010. He said: "It's no surprise that after years of uncontrolled immigration, we have a sizeable illegal immigrant population in Britain. We are determined to get immigration under control and in the past year, net migration has fallen by a quarter."

But Britain is now facing a new immigration challenge. Under the EU's "freedom of movement" rules, beginning on January 1, 2014, a new wave of citizens from Eastern Europe will gain the right to live and work unrestrictedly in Britain. Bulgarians and Romanians -- so-called "A2" nationals, totaling 29 million in all -- have had restricted rights to come to Britain, as they joined the EU in 2007, but those limits will end on December 31, 2013.

An estimated 150,000 A2 nationals are already living in Britain, and some British MPs have forecast that as many as 300,000 more immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania, the poorest countries in the EU, could enter Britain in 2014 alone.

Speaking to the BBC's Sunday Politics show on January 13, Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, acknowledged the looming problem. He said: "Given that we've got a housing shortage, any influx from Romania and Bulgaria is going to cause problems. It's going to cause problems not just in terms of the housing market but also on the social housing market."

Separately, the latest tranche of data from Britain's 2011 Census, released in December 2012, shows that England and Wales experienced their greatest-ever population growth (7.1%) in any 10-year period since 1800. Much of this increase is due to immigration.

In real terms, 13% (or 7.5 million) of the population of England and Wales was born abroad. Of that number, 3.8 million arrived between 2001 and 2011. In other words, most of the immigrants living in England and Wales today arrived within the past 10 years.

The census data also showed that Islam is by far the fastest growing religion in Britain. The Muslim population in England and Wales increased by 80% (1.2 million), from 1.5 million in 2001 to 2.7 million in 2011, making it the second-largest religion in Britain.

According to official projections compiled by the ONS, the population of Britain is on course to reach 70 million in less than 15 years. ONS data says the population is set to rise from 62.3 million in 2010 to 67.2 million by 2020 to 70 million in 2027 and 73.2 million by 2035.

The ONS says two-thirds of the projected increase from 2010 to 2035 is either directly or indirectly due to immigration. This will be due to people entering Britain, and also their future offspring.

MPs at the House of Commons recently passed a motion calling for the coalition government to take "all necessary steps" to keep the population of Britain below 70 million.

Speaking at the Parliament, Conservative MP Nicholas Soames said: "We would see a population increase of 7.7 million people, nearly 5 million of whom would be purely as a result of new immigrants and their children. Numbers of that kind are hard to grasp, so let me put it like this: in the coming 15 years, just for new immigrants and their families, we will have to build the equivalent of eight of the largest cities outside the capital -- Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford, Bristol and Glasgow -- together with the associated social infrastructure of schools, roads, hospitals, railways and all the rest."

Soames also blamed the previous Labour government for its "chaotic, ill-thought out and deeply irresponsible approach to immigration." Under its watch, Soames said, Britain had witnessed "the greatest wave of immigration ... in nearly 1,000 years."

Meanwhile, a survey published by the Extremis Project, a group that monitors populist politics, found that more than half (66%) of British voters would be willing to back a party that promised to "prioritize traditional British values over other cultures."

The poll found that 41% of people would vote for a party that promised to curb all immigration, and more than one-third (37%) would support political parties that promised to reduce the number of Muslims in Britain and the presence of Islam in society.

In a major speech on integration, hosted by British Future and Policy Exchange on January 15, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said it is essential that immigrants learn English. He said that millions of people living in Britain were closed off from society because of a lack of literacy, and he unveiled a £6 million ($9.5 million) fund to encourage projects to help non-speakers learn the language, as it will help them "improve their circumstances and climb the social ladder."

Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.

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