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Without immigrants, Britain would be a much poorer place


Immigration is good. There, I've said it. Now I wait to be struck down by a thunder bolt.

A country that attracts immigrants is a healthy country. It boasts a growing economy, a stable society, and offers a safe environment for children to grow up in. Its people live under the rule of law, with freedom of speech and of religion. It's a country of which I'm immeasurably proud to be a citizen.

Without immigrants, Britain would be a much poorer place. It would be hungrier, dirtier and less healthy. It's immigrants who pick and pack the food that we eat, immigrants who clean our offices and streets, immigrants who keep the NHS going and care for the elderly in their homes and nursing homes. (A quarter of NHS doctors are non-British, and according to the British Medical Association, "many NHS services would struggle to provide effective care to their patients" without non-British staff.)

In many of our biggest towns and cities, it's immigrants and their British-born children who drive the buses, trains and taxis, and immigrants who serve us our early morning coffee on the way to work. If they all went on strike on the same day, the country would quickly grind to a stand-still.

Some of my best friends are immigrants. Come to that, my own parents were immigrants, refugees from Nazi Germany. During my 23 years working for the BBC, some of my most interesting, dynamic and imaginative colleagues were immigrants.

To me, these are the truths that are absurdly self-evident. Immigrants tend to be young, energetic, and ambitious. They are risk-takers, otherwise they wouldn't be here. They run our corner shops and the late-night takeaways, they start their own businesses, pay taxes, employ staff, create wealth.

Stelios Haji-Ioannou of easyJet fame is just one of countless immigrants who have been of immense benefit to British national life. Mr Marks, of M&S, was a Jewish immigrant from Belarus, Mr Selfridge was from the American state of Wisconsin, Tesco was founded by Jack Cohen, the son of an immigrant from Poland. In Silicon Valley in California, where so many of the world's most exciting technology innovations are developed, more than half the corporate chief executives are foreign-born. 

So how come no one is saying any of this? How come our political leaders seem to believe that the only way to confront UKIP is by parroting its prejudices? Since when was it the job of leaders to bow to bigotry?

"Immigrants take our jobs." Wrong. They do the jobs for which there are no, or not enough, suitable British applicants.

"They undercut British workers' wage levels." Wrong. It's employers, not employees, who set wage levels. No immigrant wants to work for poverty-level wages.

"They sponge off the welfare state." Wrong.  According to a study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, immigrants from the eight central and eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004 were 59 per cent less likely than natives to receive state benefits or tax credits and 57 per cent less likely to live in social housing. What's more, the OECD has estimated that on average, households headed by migrants in the UK contributed about €3,000 more than they received in benefits in 2007-2009.

"The country is over-crowded; we haven't got room for any more." Wrong. We may be a bit more crowded than other EU countries, but UK population density is still way below that of Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangladesh, South Korea, India and Japan. The UK problem isn't lack of space, it's lack of housing.

"Romanians and Bulgarians will flood in to the UK as soon as restrictions on them are lifted at the end of 2013." Wrong. There were an estimated 144,000 Romanian and Bulgarian workers in the UK at the end of last year. Three months later, the number was 4,000 lower. Yes, lower.

I am a Londoner, I live in London, and I delight in the capital's kaleidoscopic culture. Unlike Nigel Farage, I love it when I hear foreign languages being spoken on the bus or train: was that Russian or Polish? Hausa or Yoruba? Urdu or Hindi? Does it really matter that I can't understand what my fellow passengers are saying? After all, they aren't speaking to me, and it makes me proud that so many foreigners want to come here. 

The world's most successful economy and most dynamic nation has at the entrance to its main historic immigration gateway a giant, torch-bearing statue, famously inscribed with the words: "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Its freely elected head of state is the son of an immigrant father. (In fact, our own head of state, admittedly not elected, freely or otherwise, is herself descended from immigrants.)

By the way, some immigrants are criminals. Some of them are murderers, cheats, and swindlers. Just like the rest of us. But the vast majority of them are decent, law-abiding men and women who have chosen to come to Britain because they admire it and think they can prosper here.

According to the findings of the latest British Social Attitudes survey, reported in The Guardian this week, 30 per cent of the people questioned described themselves as either very or a little prejudiced against people of a different race. That's a lot higher than I would like it to be, but it also suggests that 70 per cent don't regard themselves as prejudiced.

The lies that UKIP voters (and not only UKIP voters) apparently believe about immigrants are just that: lies. It is the job of responsible politicians -- and the media -- to counter them. But I won't hold my breath …

By Robin Lustig, Journalist and former Presenter on The World Tonight, Radio 4

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