By Cohen, Nick
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 131, No. 4588
In January last year, Barbara Roche -- now, thankfully, a forgotten politician -- published an extraordinary report. Britian, the Home Office minister said, needed 150,000 immigrants from outside the EU every year for the next 20 years. They had to come to keep the economy moving and provide doctors, nurses, computer programmers, engineers, skivvies and navvies. Roche had advanced her career by pushing political asylum-seekers into penury and using every method she could devise to keep genuine refugees out. Yet in her last months at the Home Office, economic reality had forced her to abandon rabble-rousing and propose mass immigration. No one took much notice.
The projections are more startling in the rest of the European Union. At the same time as Roche's report came out, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, then the French interior minister, said that the EU needed 75 million immigrants by 2050. Admittedly, no one can guarantee that these estimates are accurate. But the nature of an honest debate is easy enough to imagine.
It would begin with a blunt statement that Britain and the rest of the European Union have falling birth-rates and an ageing population. The EU will need millions of immigrants if it is to pay the pensions of today's workers. Honesty would then require a discussion about who should be let in. If the government had total control, it might prefer, for instance, a website designer to a specialist in Arab poetry from Iraq without portable skills. But the government doesn't have total control and insists it doesn't want it. New Labour says it wants to uphold international law and has nothing against refugees who can prove that they have a genuine fear of persecution. It merely wants to stop economic migrants getting in by posing as refugees.
Those on the other side might reply that they have honest arguments of their own. They might say that there is a limit to how many foreigners a culture can absorb. It would be better for Britain to be poorer than more ethnically diverse. They might say that they are prepared to sacrifice the wealth of pensioners to protect the unskilled working class, whose wages could well be held down, and trade unions, which could be weakened by the influx of cheap labour.
They might make these and many other good arguments. But, instead, the newspapers and bigots in all parties demand toughness -- and the government gives it to them. We have had years of systemic lying. Worthless hacks assure their readers that only 20 per cent of asylum-seekers are allowed to stay by the Home Office and the rest are frauds (actually, the real figure is 50 per cent); that aliens are flooding in to sponge off the absurdly generous welfare state (asylum-seekers have to live way below the official poverty line); and that one million illegal immigrants have disappeared in British cities (no one has the faintest idea how many people have disappeared).
The biggest lie is that apparently authoritative label "illegal immigrant". The distinction between genuine refugees and illegal immigrants is more bogus than Tony Blair's smile. No refugee, however authentic, can travel to Britain legally. The government imposes visa restrictions on the countries from which they are fleeing and then refuses to issue visas to those claiming sanctuary. The daily reports of illegal immigrants storming the Channel Tunnel neglect to mention that some -- not all -- are the genuine victims of persecution.
The government has not explained forcefully the economic consequences of keeping foreigners out. Its profession of concern for genuine refugees is a transparent falsehood, albeit one that is rarely exposed. Mendacity is expected. What no one foresaw was that the attempt to placate the media mob would rebound.
The Asylum Act 1999 appeared to have closed the last means of illegal entry into Britain. The owners of cars and lorries would join the owners of planes and ships and be fined if they were found with a visa-less asylum-seeker in their vehicles. …