Gordon Brown’s spectacular gaffe when he was prime minister, calling a Labour party supporter a bigoted woman, forgetting he was still wired to a news microphone after a live interview, caused a sensation in the British press. The woman had been questioning him about his immigration and economic policies. In the run-up to elections the Conservative party lit a metaphorical fire under this subject, stating they will implement a limit on the numbers of non-EU economic migrants. The Liberal Democrats stirred up the issue further by saying they will grant amnesty to people who have been in Britain for 10 years, speak English and have a clean record, regardless of their immigration status.
There are segments of the native society who view with distrust Eastern European migrants who came to the UK with the right to work there. The woman whom Gordon Brown erroneously called bigoted was likely trying to highlight the fact that these migrants are taking job opportunities and social benefits away from Britons. This concern is nothing new — whenever you have an influx of immigrants and no proper integration you will find this type of prejudice. However, a report produced by the Migration Policy Institute concludes that more than half of these workers end up in low-paid jobs, despite being highly skilled, as compared to 18 per cent of native-born workers. The report also states that the vast majority stays only for 12 months.
This event made me wonder what it would be like if Pakistan had not let in the millions of Afghan refugees that came during the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Some are now part of Pakistani society, such as the owners of the Kabul Restaurant in Islamabad, but others continue to live in terrible conditions. Where there is social inequity, crime often follows; that is not to say that they are not plenty of home-grown criminals, but this movement of people has caused some disruption in Pakistan. Heroin entering from Afghanistan is said to have contributed to addiction problems. The beginnings of the Kalashnikov culture coincided with the lack of border control during this time.
The issue of immigration policies is a complex condition of modern life and there is no simple solution. Helping people by allowing them opportunities not accorded to them in their home countries is heartwarming, but the long-term impact on the well-being of natives has to be considered. Integration programmes are crucial to settling in immigrants and allaying the fears of natives; however importance should first be given to a comprehensive immigration policy with a long-term view. The question that ought to be asked before anything can be determined is: can your country afford to take care of additional people belonging to another country, or should you first concentrate on building a firm economic and social foundation for your own people?
Published in the Express Tribune, May 19th, 2010.