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Sunday 8 July 2007

We can't be ostriches about the downside of immigration

LAST month, Sinn Fein, in the shape of Daithi Doolan, told the Forum on Europe that the Labour Party's cautious attitude to immigration - as expressed by Pat Rabbitte - was intended "to appease more vocal, xenophobic or indeed racist voices in our society".

(Had I been Pat Rabbitte, I should have found it difficult to resist pointing out that this was rich coming from a Brit-hating party which regarded dead immigrants as collateral damage. It's just over 10 years since a massive IRA bomb murdered 29-year-old Inan Ul-haq Bashir in his London newspaper kiosk. And it's just over a week since Sinn Fein's chums in Eta did the same in Madrid to two poor Ecuadoreans, 35-year-old Carlos Alonso Palate and 19-year-old Diego Estacio Civizapa.)

In upholding the contemporary piety that unlimited immigration is an unmitigated good for everyone, business and business-orientated political parties, the middle classes and Sinn Fein are lined up together. In the case of the first three, it's to do with the perceived economic benefits of high-quality cheap labour. In the case of the Shinners - apart from their addiction to internationalist claptrap - it's the clear electoral advantages to be gained from championing immigrants. Every EU citizen living in Ireland has a vote in local and European elections and Sinn Fein has the money and the manpower to woo them.

Few of us want a closed society, and most of us rightly feel sympathy for asylum-seekers and economic migrants. Yet on its present scale, immigration is not wonderful for everyone - not for the indigenous population, not for the immigrants and not for the countries from which they come.

In Britain, kicking and screaming, the politicians and the commentariat have been forced to confront some hard facts. Ireland should be listening to Pat Rabbitte, who rightly welcomes the upside of immigration, but insists on telling the truth about the downside.

Last week, Migration Watch, a non-political body that scrutinises UK government statistics, demonstrated conclusively that far from making them all rich, immigrants add no more than around four pence per week to the wealth of each UK resident - which does not weigh heavily in the balance when you take account of the problems caused by the strains on schools, the national health service, transport and social services.

As Migration Watch says, besides the moral duty to take in refugees, society gains from managed immigration, but it is wishful thinking to believe that massive immigration and overcrowding do no damage.

"Rubbish," say the ostriches. "Most immigrants are young and successful and will go home soon." Well, certainly in the UK and Ireland, they aren't doing that. Just look at the Poles, generally regarded as the great success story: a high proportion are staying, marrying here or bringing their families over, or - something that makes people in the UK apoplectic - they're legitimately claiming benefits for the children back in Poland.

What's more, they're not integrating.

The middle classes are reaping the benefit of the Polish nannies and plumbers and waitresses and cleaners: the working class and underclass are losing out. Immigrants who are prepared to live in overcrowded and sub-standard accommodation undercut the natives. "There is no point in us putting our heads in the sand; there has been an exploitation of migrant labour in this economy," Rabbitte told the forum.

"I know, as do most of my colleagues across all parties who have to do constituency clinics and so on, that, on a micro basis, there has been some displacement." A displacement that will get worse as the number of migrants increases. Failures in educational and social policy have left us with a section of the population which needs encouragement and training to enter the labour market. What hope is there for them now employers no longer need them?

And are we really being kind to immigrants? Many of them are living in conditions akin to slave labour; others are homeless. Something like 3,000 are thought to be sleeping on the streets in Britain, and it's hard to persuade them to go home with the stigma of failure.

"All my neighbours saw me leave and my family are relying on me," one unhappy Polish father told an Observer journalist. "How can I go back and admit I have been homeless? I would rather stay here, sleep in the gutter and continue to hope and fight for work." And he's not even one of those at rock bottom. What about those who have ended up as prostitutes?

We of all people should be concerned about vulnerable members of a diaspora. Reading the list of grants made last month by the Department of Foreign Affairs to Irish organisations in Britain caring for elderly poor Irish emigrants was a harrowing reminder of how terrible it was for those who ended up unsuccessful and lonely in a foreign country. It's time to get through to prospective immigrants the truth that no more than the streets of London are the streets of Dublin paved with gold.

How much of a favour are we doing for Poland? Yes, of course the remittances have been helpful, but the scale of emigration has caused its own devastation. With some success, the Polish government is attracting foreign investment, yet the prospective workers have fled.

In the UK in November, Polish president Lech Kaczynski was begging both skilled and unskilled Poles to go home and help the economy grow. "Everybody's left for Britain or Ireland," said the manager of a gravel and construction company in Ostroleka, a small city about 75 miles north of Warsaw. "There's nobody left to hire."

We can do better than the economic illiterates and the ostriches. It's time to admit that immigration is a complicated issue. Migration Watch's objective is "that there should be an open and frank policy debate, based on the facts. Thereafter, decisions are a matter for the political system. We believe that the government's lack of frankness and the failure of much of the media, until recently, openly to address the substance of these matters have given rise to rumour and suspicion which can only encourage the rise of the extreme right, to which we are strongly opposed."

Pat Rabbitte couldn't have put it better.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards