Glasgow, United Kingdom – Few political issues have stirred the 21st century British state like immigration.
As the country continues to wrestle with its place within the European Union, the influx of EU migrants to UK shores has become one of the most controversial – and thorny – topics of discussion in recent years.
Earlier this month, a European Court of Justice ruling backing German moves to restrict unemployed migrants‘ rights to welfare was welcomed by British Prime Minister David Cameron, who, himself under pressure to reduce EU migration, has promised Britain an in-out EU referendum by 2017 if returned to power in next May‘s UK general election.
Such a proposition, combined with the rise of the anti-EU and anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), has for many observers made immigration a politically charged issue with few to rival it.
“I don‘t think the debate is a healthy one at the moment,“ Stephen Tall, editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, the leading independent website for British Liberal Democrat party supporters, told Al Jazeera.
for the huge improvement in London schools over the last decade, making London one of the most successful educational capitals in the world.”]
“It‘s good that there is a debate because there was a period of time when there was no grown-up discussion about immigration at all. There were people saying that we didn‘t talk about immigration, and 10 years ago that was possibly true, but it‘s not true anymore. But, in terms of whether that discussion today is braced by facts, then clearly it‘s not.“
Tall said as large swathes of the British – especially English – electorate continue to show their discontent with all things European and immigration, the economic facts – one of which, according to a recent University College London study, stated European migrants contributed more than £20bn ($31.3bn) to UK public finances between 2001 and 2011 – appear “irrelevant to the debate“.
“Immigration has helped fuel economic growth in London and it‘s probably [partially responsible] for the huge improvement in London schools over the last decade, making London one of the most successful educational capitals in the world – and that‘s partly been driven by the ambition of the immigrants who‘ve settled here,” said Tall.
“But, for a lot of people, London feels like another place – it feels raucous and busy and uncomfortable and not somewhere they‘d like to live or not somewhere they‘d like their towns or villages or cities to turn into.“
Patricia Culligan is the UKIP general election candidate for Eastleigh, Hampshire, in England‘s southeast. She told Al Jazeera that far from playing on British people‘s fears about immigration, as many opponents of her party allege, UKIP has provided a voice for those many members of the UK public dissatisfied with both the number of EU migrants in Britain and the EU itself.
“Immigration has become an issue and is so interlinked with the EU that it‘s almost impossible to separate the two,“ says the one-time Labour voter.
“But there are different strands: from UKIP‘s perspective – which I wholeheartedly uphold – it is simply about [immigrant] numbers. That‘s not what the British media want to say. They want to find reasons to say that we‘re racist. I‘ve had people protesting about me when I stood in the [May 2014] European Election … I went out to talk to the protesters to say that any society should look after its existing citizens before we start inviting more people to come in and share … [But] the negativity about immigration has mostly come because the press and political establishment don‘t want us to talk about it at all.”
Some 1,800,000 EU migrants currently live and work across all four nations of the UK – a country of 64.1 million – with Poles one of the highest profile EU nationalities today plying their trade on this island state. Yet, say many observers, it is in England where sentiments of anti-immigration feeling run particularly high.
“There are cultural nationalists in England who fear that their country is being taken over by a different culture,“ Iain Macwhirter, a UK social and political commentator, told Al Jazeera. “That there are too many people who come to Britain who don‘t speak English, for example, and they have their own communities and are separated off from the rest of the country. But, there‘s an economic anxiety, too, where in some areas of England low-paid workers feel they‘re being undercut by immigrants – though that‘s probably less the case than it appears.“
Britain‘s recorded 579,000 Polish residents from a 2011 census have become almost symbolic of the country‘s EU influx. With their own magazines, newspapers and radio stations, the UK‘s Polish contingent have more than made their mark since Poland entered the EU 10 years ago.
“Even if Poland did celebrate 25 years of freedom [from communist rule this year], many needed to leave after lots of people couldn‘t find jobs which could cover all their daily needs,“ said Adam Andrzejko, editor-in-chief of Polish-language newspaper Nasze Strony in England‘s east.
“The EU opened the door for Polish people in 2004, but they didn‘t measure how many of them were ready to start looking for a new place to live. Thousands of [Polish] emigrants are very highly skilled, but they work [today] as cleaners, warehouse people, or even agricultural workers.“
UKIP – which has surged in the polls for next year‘s general election after winning Britain‘s European election in May with 4.3 million votes – has put Britain‘s two biggest parties, Conservative and Labour, on the defensive in the EU and immigration debate.
Yet, according to Andrzejko, the Euro-sceptic party is taking on at least one EU migrant community that has today become a very real part of British public life.
“UKIP can talk and talk with no end, but there is no law that can be used to deport Polish people who buy houses or cars and have got strong work contracts in the UK,“ he told Al Jazeera. “We are part of this country now.“
Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi