American Renaissance

‘I heard that Britain is the best place for us to go now. It doesn’t treat refugees like animals’

Passions are running high in Holland as it prepares to expel 26,000 immigrants. But should the UK be following its example? David Harrison and Damien McElroy report., Feb. 15

“It is our shame,” said William Van Bekkam, a retired headmaster standing outside Amsterdam’s Beinkorf Department Store, surveying the rough sleepers in the city’s main square.

“We gave these people false hope but now they don’t have a future here,” he said. “We offered our hospitality but didn’t think about what the policy would produce.” He shook his head. “It is a shame for Holland that we have grown to regard all this as something normal.”

It will not be normal for much longer. Last week, in a spectacular reversal of decades of liberal immigration laws, the Dutch government announced that it planned to force 26,000 failed asylum seekers to return to their countries of origin over the next three years. It amounts to one of the biggest deportations in modern European history and will affect one in 600 of Holland’s population.

Mr Van Bekkam, like many middle-class Dutch people, thinks that the government’s decision-which applies to almost all asylum seekers who arrived before new laws introduced in 2001-is correct and courageous. “It is brave for the government to recognise that it can’t neglect its duty any more,” he said.

His wife held her husband’s hand and vented the frustration of many native-born Dutch who feel that a large influx of immigrants has eroded the values they hold dear and made Holland a more dangerous place. “I was born here,” she said. “I have a right to feel safe, but a lot of people don’t feel safe any more.”

Other shoppers shared the Van Bekkams’ anger at the way their culture had been “damaged”, but many declined to put their names to deeply-felt grievances. “Society is always changing, but it has not been changing for the better,” said one customer. “It’s much less safe now because the norms that we valued are disappearing. We respect the law but those who come from elsewhere have to learn to do that too.”

The blunt “no means no” message was delivered to failed asylum seekers by Rita Verdonk, the Dutch minister for immigration. It followed an all-party parliamentary report last month, which concluded that Holland’s attempt to create an integrated multi-ethnic society had failed. Her view resonates throughout the land: national polls show that the majority of Dutch people feel it is wrong that refugees whose applications are rejected stay in the country and flout the law.

The Dutch measure is the most dramatic sign of a gradual hardening of attitudes towards immigrants-both legal and illegal-in western Europe. On May 1, 10 more countries join the European Union: Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Cyprus and Malta. All 70 million citizens of those countries will have the right to move or work anywhere in the union.

At first, many of the current members welcomed the development as a positive sign of European integration. But as the reality of what a mass movement could mean dawned, many EU members have invoked exemptions that allow them to block migrant workers from the 10 “accession states” for between two and seven years.

Germany and Austria-whose politicians fear an influx of immigrants prepared to work for low wages from Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary-will retain immigration controls, probably for the maximum seven years after “enlargement”. Germany is sending out 7,000 inspectors to catch the thousands of eastern Europeans already working illegally in German cities-including Berlin, where an estimated 30,000 Poles are working as cleaners and building workers alone.

France and Italy also plan to keep the restrictions on immigrant workers for the maximum period. Denmark, Holland, Greece and Sweden initially took a more liberal line, but all have now performed sharp U-turns.

Only two EU states have stood by their original pledges to open their doors to all new EU citizens from day one: Ireland and Britain. However, following the deaths of 19 suspected illegal Chinese immigrants while cockle-picking in Morecambe Bay, the British Government’s stance is being seriously questioned, and the issue of immigration has been pushed to the forefront of public debate.

Last week Tony Blair came under relentless pressure from opposition politicians and the media to justify his policy, which would give immigrants access to jobs, benefits, schools and the health service. His response, hailed as a “climbdown” and a “victory” by the tabloids, was to announce that “measures” would be introduced to crack down on “benefit tourists”-those who come to Britain with the aim of taking advantage of Britain’s generous welfare system.

The Home Office said last night that those measures would be announced “soon”. Over the past few days, ministers have diligently intoned the mantra of a crackdown on immigrants who abuse the benefits system. The prospect of immigrants putting an intolerable strain on the welfare state was enough to persuade the Swedish Government to reverse its “open door” policy; but in Britain the door remains wide open.

For many-and not just Right-wing politicians and commentators-the Government’s attitude is naive and potentially disastrous. Goran Persson, the Swedish prime minister, explaining his country’s U-turn, said: “We have to be realistic and understand that if everyone else says transitional arrangements are necessary then we must also be aware of the risks and protect ourselves.

“We would be naive if we didn’t see the risks if we were to be the only country welcoming people from east Europe to work for peanuts and giving them access to our social benefits.”

Mr Blair, it seems, is happy to take those risks, even though Britain is already Europe’s most powerful magnet for immigrants who are drawn by the thriving economy, welfare system, the health service, schools and the language-which many study as a second language in their native countries.

More immigrants are already pouring into Britain than ever before, with an average net rise of 153,000 for each of the past five years. The numbers will continue to rise and almost two thirds-4.4 million-of Britain’s projected 7 million population rise over the next 25 years will be the result of immigration, according to an analysis of Government figures by MigrationWatch, an independent think tank, published earlier this month.

Aside from the issue of immigration the Government has had some success in reducing the number of asylum seekers, but MigrationWatch says that this will be offset by a huge expansion of the work permit scheme-up from 30,000 permits a year in the early 1990s to an estimated 175,000 in this financial year, plus dependents, with many more to come after enlargement.

By contrast, since the adoption of new laws in 2001, Holland has imposed tight restrictions on the number of newcomers. Asylum seekers have just 48 hours to prove their case. The shift was accelerated after the country’s 2002 elections when 10 per cent of voters backed the party of Pim Fortuyn, the anti-immigration candidate who was assassinated a few days before the poll.

On Friday, refugees in Holland said that more and more failed asylum seekers were buying bogus passports and identity documents on the black market in the hope of getting to Britain. Rumours that Britain is quietly allowing Dutch refugees into the country to make up for a shortage of cheap labour are sweeping the Dutch asylum centres.

“I heard last night that Britain is the best place to go for us now,” said Silva, a refugee in Rotterdam. “If we can get the papers we can go there and work. Britain doesn’t treat its refugees like animals.”

Sir Andrew Green, the chairman of MigrationWatch and a former British ambassador, said that the implications of immigration on “housing, health, education and infrastructure” were enormous. Sir Andrew, like many critics of the Government, accepts the need for skilled migrants to be allowed into Britain under a “managed immigration policy” but says the Government has signally failed to come up with such a policy.

Many other influential figures are also concerned that the Government is out of touch with voters on immigration. David Goodhart, the editor of Prospect magazine, a political periodical, writes that public anxiety about mass migration cannot be dismissed as mere xenophobia or racism but is usually “based on a rational understanding of the value of British citizenship and its incompatibility with over-porous borders”.

He argues that “the abstract language of globalisation and universal human rights” can blind us to basic truths: “The national community remains the basic unit of human political organisation.” The “British people” are not just “individuals with specific rights and duties but a group of people with a special commitment to one another”.

Mr Goodhart describes national citizenship as “inherently exclusionary” and says that our schools and hospitals would swiftly collapse if everyone in the world was entitled to British citizenship or if Britain had an open-door migration policy.

David Willetts, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said that if values become more diverse it becomes more difficult to sustain “the legitimacy of a universal risk-pooling welfare state”. He said: “People ask: “Why should I pay for them when they are doing things I wouldn’t do?”

The Conservatives scent blood as the Government’s struggles to convince the public that it is in control of immigration policy. Humfrey Malins, the party’s immigration spokesman, accused the Government of being “completely out of touch with the feelings of ordinary people”.

He believes that the Government has been “caught on the hop” over the EU accession states. The Tories say that Britain needs to “regain control of our borders”, accept a quota of 20,000 refugees who are identified as bona fide by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, re-examine human rights laws to see if they are still relevant, and renegotiate and restore an agreement with France stating that any illegal immigrants arriving in Britain via France should be sent back across the Channel.

Senior police intelligence officers are concerned that enlargement will bring an upsurge in organised crime. In November last year, a 27-page report published by Europol, the pan-European law enforcement agency, said that almost all of the new EU members “will become source, transit and destination countries for criminal goods and services”.

The report said: “There are indications that international organised crime groups are relocating their activities and members to these countries, which have also become focal points for the investment of illegal funds.” It identified gangs in Albania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania, Russia and the former Yugoslavia as posing the greatest threats.

Yet the Government says that more young migrant workers are needed as the indigenous population is not growing fast enough, and is getting older. But Mr Malins asked: “Where is the evidence for this? Instead of all this talk the Government should give us facts and evidence.”

The difficulty that the Government must face is that, if other wealthy European states are tough on immigration while Britain is perceived as “soft”, then Britain will become even more attractive to immigrants.

Alies Fernhaout, a refugee consultant in Rotterdam, spelt it out. “As important as getting rid of the illegal immigrants is the hope that the new policy will deter other would-be refugees from coming to Holland,” he said. “This is being done to send a signal to refugees to go elsewhere. There will be more people who will go to England because they know that life there is so much better for refugees.”