I have sometimes wondered if anyone actually reads political columns like this one. Then, suddenly, in the past few weeks, I have found people stopping me in the street and supermarket to urge me to argue a sensible case for asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants. It seems to me that Christmas is a particularly suitable time to take a new look at how we treat each other. And surely caring for strangers is a central part of the Christian message?
I always find it helpful to look at some facts and figures when considering complex issues. It goes without saying that views which are not based on reality can only be prejudice.
So here are some statistics:
Pakistan supports more refugees than any other country – 2.5 million, mostly from neighbouring Afghanistan. Iran hosts nearly 2 million. In 2001, Asian countries hosted nearly half of the world’s refugees, Africa just over a quarter, and Europe less than a fifth.
Within Europe, the UK ranks just below the middle of the table of asylum seekers per thousand of the population. We get 1.5 applications per thousand; Austria tops the table with 3.7, while Spain, Italy and Portugal take the bottom three places at less than 0.2 each. The European average is 1.1.
Britain will need half a million workers in IT, construction and domestic work over the next eight years, to plug gaps in our workforce.
Government figures suggest that our population will rise from its current 58.8 million to 64 million by 2040; it will then decline to 57 million in the second half of this century.
Looking at these figures, I wonder why so many otherwise intelligent people fall into a hysterical panic about immigration, fearful that we are about to sink under waves of incomers. The tabloid press, of course, has a lot to answer for – but, as we all know, they make their money turning dramas into crises. ‘Not All That Many Immigrants’ is not the kind of headline that will sell extra copies.
The Labour government does not help either. Their first two Home Secretaries, Jack Straw and David Blunkett, appear to have been competing with their Tory predecessors for some kind of perverse “Who’s The Biggest Bigot?” prize. Let’s not forget that the application of the harsh asylum rules they have introduced would have meant no Michael Howard, no Michael Portillo – their immigrant families, looking for shelter here, would simply not have been allowed in.
Here are some more numbers: The Office of National Statistics has recently reported that British women are, on average, having 1.6 children. To replace our current population, a birthrate of 2.1 would be needed. In other words, if we do nothing, our population will gradually decline. And if we do nothing for long enough, we will simply become extinct.
So what should we do? It seems to me that we have three basic choices.
We could try to continue as we are. Our population is ageing, our workforce is shrinking, our birthrate is falling. Somehow, a decreasing number of workers would have to support an increasing number of pensioners. Quite how this would work, I can’t say. Perhaps those who oppose immigration in all its forms could explain.
We could introduce a law to compel women to have more babies. I sincerely hope that Liberal Democrats would not be the only ones to raise their voices against this kind of state interference in our private lives. This option might work – but I doubt if many of us would wish to live in the brave new world Britain would have become. If we want to go down this fascist route, we could also stop British workers emigrating – again, state interference in personal choices which I believe to be unacceptable.
There is, of course, a third way. We could take a rational look at the reality of our position. We need workers to do the jobs we are unable or unwilling to do. We need workers to pay the taxes to support our pensioners, to pay for the NHS, to pay for our schools and police force over the next couple of decades. In various parts of the world, these workers are ready and willing to come to our rescue.
They have done this in the past. 70% of our catering workers are foreign. So are 13% of our teachers and university researchers. One in three doctors and one in 10 nurses come from overseas. They want to come here. We need them. So what’s the problem?
I really can’t think of a better way to sum up than I did more than two years ago in this column: “A sensible immigration policy, continuing our history of tolerance, would allow us to benefit from the innovative zeal of young people from other parts of the world, whose energy and enthusiasm could generate the wealth to pay our pensions in the next several decades.
“Or we could continue our recently discovered mean streak, and retire in poverty and intolerance, while the rest of the world prospers.”
A happy new year to you all.