Saturday, June 05, 2004

Those Illusory Immigrant Hordes

Given the hyperventilating of the Daily Wail about the dire consequences that would follow on the heels of Tony Blair's decision to forego the controls on the movements of Eastern Europeans, in contrast to the measures adopted everywhere else in continental Europe other than Sweden, it's amusing to learn that the hordes of dirty foreigners predicted by that bigoted ragsheet have failed to materialize:

DISILLUSIONED migrants from Eastern and Central Europe are returning home as their dreams of a better life in Britain turn sour.

Five weeks after their countries joined the European Union, the reality of life here is proving tougher than many hopeful migrants expected when they boarded aircraft and coaches for London.

They have found it much more difficult than expected to find work, housing and even to open bank accounts.

Migrants from largely rural areas have been bewildered at finding themselves in a city the size of London. The plight of those coming unable to speak basic English has been even worse.

Some have been victims of “scams” in which they handed over cash to fraudsters with promises of non-existent jobs or housing.

The Polish Foreign Ministry recently estimated that, since May 1, 15,000 people had left Poland for London and that 8,000 had returned. It is not clear how this figure was reached because free movement within the EU means that there is no counting of Poles departing from or arriving in their country.

But the difficulties facing migrants travelling to Britain and the stories of those who have returned have been sufficient to prompt action by the governments of Poland and the Czech Republic.


In Poland newspapers and magazines have published reports under headlines such as “Polish Hell in London” and there have been articles claiming that some job advertisements in the Polish press are an elaborate criminal racket.

Young Poles have been returning home penniless having failed to find work.

Yesterday, at Warsaw’s international bus station, Stefan Barcinski emerged at the end of a 28-hour journey from London just delighted to be back home. Mr Barcinski, a dishevelled construction worker, said: “I didn’t get any work. London is so expensive. I had to live off bread — just bread. I will never go back.”
I said that this story was amusing, but what I didn't say was that it was unexpected, at least to me. The history of immigration under a liberalized regime is well enough known that I never had any doubts that there would be no massive influx of Poles and Czechs willing to work for almost nothing - for instance, one little mentioned fact is that a very big proportion of the immigrants who landed on America's shores in the late 19th and early 20th centuries ended up returning to their home countries. Another point worth noting is that South Africa, Canada and Australia were never able to compete with America in attracting English-speaking immigrants, despite carrying out aggressive marketing campaigns throughout the 19th and early 20th century, and even in the face of British government subsidies and blandishments to encourage emigrants to forsake the rebellious republic for the greater good of the British Empire.

The consequences of reduced immigration controls are all too often exaggerated by xenophobes. Immigrant labor is like any other commodity in responding to the forces of supply and demand, and big problems only need arise if unproductive immigrants are lured by the prospect of generous welfare benefits. As long as Blair's Labor government sticks to its promises to exclude Eastern European immigrants from welfare benefits for the first few years after their entry into the UK, I don't foresee any deluge of incomers supposedly looking to "steal" scarce jobs from the natives. If large numbers of Poles start moving to London, it will be because the British labor market has an immense unmet need for just the skills the Poles can provide, which at present and for the immediate future seems far from being the case.