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'Immigration panic' in UK on New Year eve

world Updated: Dec 31, 2013 01:14 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Prasun Sonwalkar
Hindustan Times
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Besides severe storms currently buffeting Britain, the island is in the grip of what top politicians have called an 'immigration panic' as citizens of Romania and Bulgaria become eligible to move, work and claim state benefits here from Wednesday.

January 1 has become a date of much public anxiety rarely seen here since April 1968, when the enigmatic Conservative leader, Enoch Powell, warned of the effects of immigration from India and other Commonweath countries in his famous 'rivers of blood' speech in Birmingham.

Driven by ruling Conservative party politicians, right-wing think-tanks and mass circulation tabloids, the predominant narrative is that beggars and the poor from Romania and Bulgaria are coming from January 1 in 'another immigration wave to take our benefits'.

Comments by Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative leaders on the issue have provoked stiff criticism from the Bulgarian ambassador, European Union officials and the iconic Polish leader, Lech Walesa. Few tempering voices figure in the discourse.

Senior Liberal Democrats leader and Business secretary Vince Cable faced trenchant criticism from his Tory partners when he said last week: “We periodically get these immigration panics, I remember going back to Enoch Powell and 'rivers of blood' and all that, and if you go back a century there were panics over Jewish immigrants”.

The narrative is marked by the same language that is often used for immigration from India and other non-European Union countries: 'putting a cap on numbers', 'limiting benefits', 'strain on taxpayers', 'jobs for highly skilled', and so forth. The British police have travelled to rural Romania to warn people not to move here without jobs after 1 January.

Bulgarians and Romanians gained the right to visa-free travel to the UK in 2007, when their countries joined the European Union.

Since then, temporary restrictions have been in place meaning Romanians and Bulgarians have been able to work in the UK only if they are self-employed, have a job offer, or are filling specialist posts for which no British worker can be found.

These restrictions will be dropped on Wednesday, having been extended to the maximum period of seven years.