Few would deny that Britain is more divided than at any time...
Immigration is a hot political issue and was one of the factors that influenced the Brexit vote in 2016. Britain has a noble history of welcoming immigrants fleeing for their lives, including deposed rulers and persecuted minorities.
The latter included Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi extermination and East Germans fleeing Soviet repression. Those who helped them were rightly lauded for their humanity and courage. Yet today there is a clamour to reduce immigration and taking back control of our borders was a prominent motive for leaving the EU. Unfortunately this clamour has been misinformed on several counts.
First, the number of immigrants coming to Britain is frequently overestimated by as much as 300%. A series of polls in and since 2016 have found that respondents thought that EU immigrants to the UK were 15% of our total population. The actual figure is 5%. Total immigration in the year to last March was 588,000, of whom approximately half came to work and a majority came to a definite job. A second category, of 139,000, came to study, paying substantial fees for this. A third category, numbering 16,211, were granted asylum from threats to their lives or beliefs from tyrannical governments. Moving in the other direction in the same period, 342,000 emigrated from Britain. We also need to remember that the number of immigrants to the UK in the year to last March was 248,000 from the EU and 266,000 from non-EU countries. These statistics (taken from “Fortress Britain?” ed. Ben Ryan, Jessica Kingsley publishers 2018) challenge those who want to reduce immigration to say which category they think should be cut most and why?
The second factor that is too easily overlooked is the evidence of how much immigrant labour is needed in the UK. We are all aware now that there is a serious shortage of doctors and nurses in the UK. Two-thirds of hospitals and half of GP practices report vacancies they cannot fill. The NHS says it urgently needs 1,500 qualified doctors by 2020 and it takes seven years to train a doctor. There is also an urgent need for more nurses and this has been exacerbated by the Brexit vote which triggered a 96% fall in the number of EU nurses applying to work in the UK. We have an ageing population and a crisis in social care that makes these shortages even more critical.
A similar situation exists in the construction industry which we are currently expecting to build an extra 300,000 new homes each year. Two-thirds of small and medium building companies are struggling to find skilled bricklayers, plasterers, carpenters and electricians. Historically they have recruited them from EU countries but Brexit threatens to stop that. Agriculture has similar problems. 80,000 seasonal employees come to pick fruit and vegetables but last autumn 20% fewer were willing to come and work in what they saw as ‘racist’ Britain. Some farmers had fruit left rotting on the trees with insufficient labour to pick them. 20% of pig farmers also struggled to cope without migrant labour. Most of them have come from the EU and worked on a full time basis.
There is also a Christian perspective on this issue. Both the Old and New Testament remind us that God cares for the foreigner as well as the native born. We are not to treat foreigners badly or oppress them for we are all aliens and strangers in the world (1Peter 2:11). Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:33) reflects this. Yes there are grounds for criticism of the EU and a majority voted for Brexit but we should not let that cause us to ignore or distort the facts about the scale of immigration or our continuing need for significant numbers of immigrants. Nor should we forget that those immigrants are made in the image of God just like us, however blurred that image is in all of us.