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British immigrants decry being made scapegoats in election campaign

Friday, 08 May 2015

LONDON — Many embattled immigrants here feel they are being blamed for everything from traffic jams to crowded schools and hospitals. But as Britain’s bitterly divisive general election campaign draws to a close, some are now pushing back.

The faces of immigrants have popped up at subway, bus and rail stations across the country in a crowdfunded “I am an immigrant” poster campaign aimed at changing the tenor of the debate around immigration. About 1,000 posters have been displayed by a group called Movement Against Xenophobia.

“The media and politicians try and blame us for all the illness in Britain. Enough is enough,” said Lukas Belina, 28, a Polish firefighter and proud resident of Scotland, explaining his motivation to appear in the poster campaign. On his bright yellow poster, the firefighter declares: “For 7 years I have been saving lives and your life could be saved next.”

Immigration has long been an explosive topic in Britain and ranks among the top three campaign issues in the election, along with the economy and the National Health Service, according to a recent Ipsos MORI poll. All of the major parties have addressed it, with many politicians arguing for tightening border controls and restricting the benefits available to recently arrived migrants.

Britain’s population — estimated by the World Bank at 64.1 million in 2013 — grew significantly under the last Labor government, partly because of the expansion of the European Union, with citizens of the new member countries able to move freely within the union. Pressure groups that argue for dramatically reducing net British immigration — the difference between the number of people entering and leaving — say that the current numbers are placing unsustainable pressure on public resources such as hospitals and schools.

As Britain has been debating the pros and cons of its changing demographics in recent years, the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) rose to prominence, with its main policy issues being a call for Britain’s withdrawal from the E.U. and the slashing of immigration.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage has made headlines for saying that foreigners with HIV put pressure on the health system and that he was once late for a meeting because of a traffic jam caused by immigrants.

The jibe about traffic jams so irked Janek Zylinski, a Polish prince living in London, he made a video challenging Farage to a sword duel. Alternatively, he said he would meet Farage in a TV studio for a duel of words.

While Farage’s party is expected to win only a small number of seats, it has helped to thrust immigration to the top of the political agenda.

 David Cameron, the British prime minister and leader of the Conservative party, has come under fire for failing to fulfill a pledge he made five years ago to reduce net annual immigration to fewer than 100,000. The latest figures show it is 298,000. But he says he would aim to bring it down as he had promised and would hold a referendum on Britain’s membership in the E.U.

Ed Miliband, the opposition Labor Party leader, has said that his party had previously “got it wrong” on immigration and that the inflow needs to be controlled. While he refuses to give a target immigration number, he says he would crack down on employers exploiting foreign workers.

But immigrants are not just political scapegoats in the election campaign — they also are an important voting constituency. According to a report by Migrants’ Rights Network, nearly 4 million eligible voters in England and Wales were born in other countries.

 “Politicians can perceive it as a difficult trade-off. Do you go after anti-immigrant votes, or is there more to gain with the minority votes? And what works in 2015 may not work in 2020 when the country becomes more diverse,” said Omar Khan, director of the think tank Runnymede Trust. “As [U.S.] Republicans know, if you get a reputation for not being good on minorities, you can’t just switch it around.”

The group that initiated the poster campaign says it is apolitical and that most parties in 2015 are guilty of scapegoating immigrants. The group’s goal is to do something that most politicians spend little time doing: highlighting immigrants’ contributions to British society.

S Chelvan, a 40-year-old from Sri Lanka whose face appears on an “I am an immigrant” poster in central London, is a lawyer representing asylum-seekers and immigrants.

He said he took part in the poster campaign because he was a proud immigrant and, like other Britons, contributes “to putting the Great back into Great Britain.”

Source: The Washington Post

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