BNP's green disguise

Observations on immigration

Opponents of asylum and immigration once talked about "rivers of blood". Now they talk about "tidal waves of concrete". Enoch Powell and other early advocates of shutting Britain's borders argued that too many immigrants would shred our social cohesion. Today's anti-immigrant lobby is more likely to complain about immigrants' carbon footprint and their noxious impact on our green and pleasant land. The close-the-borders brigade has co-opted environmentalist arguments, and it is using them to demand tougher restrictions on the right to asylum in the UK.

One reason why anti-immigrants are wrapping themselves in a pseudo-green cloak is that their old arguments - about Britain being invaded by swan-eating asylum-seekers and migrants - are transparent tosh. On 21 August the Home Office published its Asylum Statistics for the second quarter of 2007. These showed that applications for asylum have fallen. Between April and June this year, there were 4,950 applications, a 13 per cent drop from the first quarter of the year.

There were 10 per cent fewer applications in the second quarter of 2007 than there were in the second quarter of 2006, when 5,495 people applied for asylum. What's more, 2,980 asylum-seekers were deported in the second quarter of 2007. This means that the net number of asylum-seekers added to the population between April and June was a measly 1,970. If this quarterly figure was averaged out over a year, it would add up to roughly 8,000 asylum-seekers - enough to fill eight streets in your average big-city suburb. Britain swamped by asylum-seekers? Get a grip.

Asylum applications have fallen steadily over the past decade. In 2006, 23,520 people applied for asylum in the UK, the lowest number since 1997. In the same year, 18,235 failed asylum-seekers were removed from the UK. We are no "soft touch": 80 per cent of applications are refused.

The number of immigrants (rather than asylum-seekers) from eastern Europe continues to rise - but not nearly by as much as the scaremongers predicted. In the first quarter of this year, after Bulgaria and Romania acceded to the European Union, 7,935 of their nationals were granted permission to come to the UK; in the second quarter 9,335 arrived and a further 3,980 were accepted under the seasonal agricultural workers' scheme. It's a far cry from the "flood" of 300,000 predicted by some tabloid (and broadsheet) writers. One reason why the Bulgarian and Romanian numbers remain low is that the government imposed stringent restrictions on who can come from those countries - skilled workers, maybe; low-skilled workers, not so much.

The number of eastern Europeans who have come to the UK since the A8 countries (the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia) joined the EU in May 2004 has reached 683,000 - the figure that most frightens the anti-immigration lobby. Yet as Philippe Legrain, author of Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, has written, "most have already left again, and many are, in effect, international commuters who spend only part of the year here". Legrain points out that in 2005, the first big year of eastern immigration into the UK, 565,000 migrants in total came to Britain - but 380,000 people left these shores. That made a net inflow of 185,000 people, or an increase to Britain's population of 0.31 per cent.

Since the idea that Britain is being "swamped" is pure poppycock, so those who oppose immigration have had to change tack. The British National Party argues that "our countryside is vanishing beneath a tidal wave of concrete" as more and more houses are built. Apparently "the biggest reason all these new houses are needed is immigration. One-third of all new homes are for immigrants and asylum-seekers." The BNP claims that "immigration is creating an environmental disaster", and worries that if we let in more migrants Britain will become "a tarmac desert".

The think tank Migration Watch claims that immigration has "significant costs" for the environment. And the right-wing Campaign for National Democracy says: "[Our population] is expected to grow by over five million during the next 20 years, chiefly as a result of immigration. This will put pressure on housing and roads, which will mean the loss of more of our countryside, the destruction of greenbelt area and worsening traffic and pollution in our cities."

Unfortunately, green-leaning groups sometimes hand these right-wingers their arguments on a plate. The Optimum Population Trust, which counts Jonathon Porritt among its patrons, argues that mass immigration is a route to environmental collapse. It has called for the balancing out of immigration with emigration, so that net immigration into Britain always remains at zero: an inhumane policy proposal that would mean saying "no", even to desperate arrivals, on the basis that they would cause our population to rise by a tiny amount.

It is worth noting that, according to 2002 figures, 45.96 per cent of Britain's land is used for intensive agriculture, 29.78 per cent of it is semi-natural, 11.91 per cent of it is woodland, and only 7.65 per cent of it is "settled" - that is, built environment. In the new pseudo-green arguments for raising the drawbridge, immigrants are once again being blamed for what are in fact social and political failures. It is underinvestment in infrastructure that leads to scarcity of good-quality housing or decent roads, not the arrival of people from overseas who simply want a better life. They should have as much right to live and work here as any of the rest of us - and if that means building more homes and roads to accommodate them, so be it.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Bush: Is the president imploding?