Austerity’s Easy Scapegoats

RightsNI is delighted to welcome this guest post by Elizabeth Nelson. Elizabeth Nelson is the Parliamentary and Campaigns Officer at the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities (NICEM), an NGO working for human rights and racial equality across Northern Ireland. Her role includes coordination of the NI Assembly’s All Party Group on Ethnic Minority Communities, as well as lobbying government officials and politicians on issue of concern for black and minority ethnic communities, and coordinating NICEM’s media and communication efforts, including the quarterly policy magazine ‘Minority Rights Now.’ She completed her Master’s in Human Rights Law at Queen’s University Belfast. This article was originally posted at

Issues of immigration, recession and austerity have become intrinsically linked in today’s Europe. What many perhaps thought started with Golden Dawn in Greece – images of marches of masked men, migrants attacked and bloodied in the street, the rise of the far right – has slowly crept to our own doorsteps. Or, perhaps it has simply been lying dormant, and has now begun to awaken.

In Sweden, riots in the capital city Stockholm last year stunned Europe. The country held up as a model for others to emulate for its commitment to promoting equality, welfare and support systems, was experiencing large-scale rioting over five nights in the immigrant enclave of Husby. Sky-rocketing inequality has hit poor immigrant communities in Sweden particularly hard.

In the United Kingdom, heavily anti-immigrant rhetoric has been documented almost everywhere you look, from the front pages tabloids, and The Daily Mail in particular, to the mouths of political leaders, who readily attribute blame to immigrants for almost every social ill resulting from the recession. This form of inflammatory and biased media coverage also heightens the risk of racially motivated hate crime by fuelling racist sentiment, intolerance and xenophobia.

Why do we blame migrants for our economic and social troubles? This is not the first time, nor is it likely to be the last. Is there any truth to the myths, or are they purely a product of racism and ideology, serving to divide rather than unite? And what impact do these myths have on public policy, and, in turn, on migrants in wider society?

From myth-making to law-making

Restrictions like those waiting in the Coalition Government’s Immigration Bill, currently making its way through Parliament, have their roots in certain fears and misconceptions that are all recession-linked, even if the recession did not cause them.


The myth that immigration potentially undercuts wages and employments opportunities in reality is more about the exploitation of foreign workers than any sort of ‘automatic’ wage drop because of inward migration and competition for jobs.  This is part of the drive towards ‘flexibility,’ which forces workers in to precarious, insecure working arrangements (such as ‘zero-hour’ contracts) and results in underemployment and exploitation of people in desperate situations.

A more effective approach might be to focus on providing consistent work at a living wage, fighting austerity alongside workers of all backgrounds. In reality, the arrival of highly motivated migrant workers not only helps to promote cultural diversity, but it drives innovation, contributes to economic growth and helps to fill skill gaps. Indeed, the Financial Times recently reported on findings from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Migration Research Centre at University College London (UCL), which highlight the ‘tangible economic and fiscal benefits [of immigration] to Britain’.


In October, an undercover BBC investigation revealed that letting agents in London were ‘refusing’ black tenants (13 October 2013). Reporters posing as landlords intimated that they would prefer their properties not be let to minorities, to which letting agents replied that they had methods to ensure this would not happen. Under the Equality Act of 2010, it is illegal for businesses to refuse to provide a service based on ethnicity.

This is very worrying, particularly in light of the provision in the Immigration Bill to require private landlords to check the immigration status of prospective tenants, likely to address the myth of ‘queue-jumping’ migrant families. The proposals are being opposed even by the landlords themselves, who worry not only about the increased bureaucracy, but also about the fact that they will be criminalized if they fail to undertake the necessary checks or knowingly allowing an undocumented migrant to rent their property.

This is not really about migrants coming and taking all the houses. Rather, it is more about a social housing shortage, and therefore the inability – or perhaps unwillingness – of the government to provide an appropriate level of social housing, dating back to the Thatcher era. This misconception persists despite evidence cited by the BBC which confirms that recent immigrants are ‘45 per cent less likely to receive state benefits’ and ‘three per cent less likely to live in social housing’. NICEM has in the past highlighted the vulnerability of migrants – particularly asylum-seekers – who are forced into the private rental sector when they cannot access the social housing to which they are entitled. They are often at risk of destitution and exploitation, which arguably is what legislation should be addressing, and providing further support for vulnerable migrants.


The Government’s favourite myth at the moment appears to be the NHS-exploiting ‘health tourist’ migrant, perhaps best personified in the heavily pregnant Nigerian woman who flies to Britain just to have her baby for free, and then goes home. Cries of ‘we’re a national health system, not an international one’ can be heard from politicians both left and right, and the Government seems embroiled in a fight with the European Commission what the exact numbers of those taking undue advantage of the NHS actually are.

In October 2013, the Commission published a report stating that jobless EU migrants make up less than five per cent of those claiming social benefits in most of the EU member states studied. This is in direct contravention to Government claims, which puts the number of ‘health tourists’ much higher.

Some media outlets have focused on the 600,000 people the Commission’s report says are ‘non-active’ in the UK, claiming that they are ‘unemployed.’ However, the Commission said this figure included older schoolchildren, students, the spouses of migrant workers, and retired people. While the report focuses more on general ‘benefit tourism’ than specifically on health, its findings are instructive as regards the healthcare debate.

GPs are concerned that they will be required to act as stand-in immigration officers if provisions in the Immigration Bill pass. They say this will affect the standard of care they are able to provide to patients of all backgrounds, and yet the Government persists with regulations despite evidence that migrants pay more tax and draw fewer benefits – including the NHS – than local Britons (UCL report 2013).

The myth and the backlash

In June 2012, the far-right Golden Dawn Party swept through the polls, becoming the third largest party in Greece. One of the central tenets of the party is its anti-immigration stance – its ‘response’ to the economic crisis in Greece. Golden Dawn is alleged to be behind horrific violence against migrants, both economic migrants and those fleeing oppression, violence and even worse economic conditions in the Middle East, North Africa and beyond.

While the UK has not seen the same level of anti-immigrant violence, it has not been short on anti-immigrant rhetoric, and indeed, it seems the problem is getting worse. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) has put what it calls the incoming ‘flood’ of immigration centre-stage in the political debate, which seems to have forced the Conservatives (and Labour) to double-down on their own stances on immigration. This has led to fierce debates on so-called ‘benefit tourism’ and immigrant-fueled criminality, particularly as regards the Roma.

Politicians often claim to be representing or reiterating the concerns of their constituents when called out on rhetoric such as this. And while there are likely many people concerned about immigration, there has been little to no examination of whythey feel that way, and what role the government, politicians and indeed the media play in creating and recreating impressions of a massive influx of immigrants bent on stealing, jobs, homes and wrecking the healthcare system. Immigrants and minorities have been used as scapegoats in times of economic crises for generations, and yet evidence to support these claims is few and far between.