Mark Steel: The Poles might be leaving but the prejudice remains

There is an almost artistic level of irrationality about immigration panics

Over the last few years it's become one of our quaint English traditions that on any day following the announcement of immigration figures, certain newspapers display headlines such as "TEN MILLION OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT POLES TO SWARM INTO BRITAIN LIKE PLUMBING LOCUSTS!!! And they plan to BUGGER OUR KITTENS!!!"

These newspapers would compete with each other until they seemed to insist the number of Poles coming was more than the number of Poles in the world, but even then they'd have replied, "Yes – well that's because they're planning to bring ten million of their dead, to make use of our soft-touch spirit welfare scheme."

But the latest figures, released yesterday, have spoilt this game because it turns out half the Poles who came here have gone back to Poland. Presumably these newspapers will get round that by screaming "Poland on brink of disaster as it's invaded by millions of Poles!!!"

"Our hospitals simply can't cope with the numbers coming in," said an un-named doctor. "I'm not racist but we're already full up."

Like all panics about immigration, the anti-Polish version has created an almost artistic level of irrationality. A landlord of a pub in Lincolnshire who seemed otherwise charming and eloquent told me, "The trouble with Poles is they walk in groups of four on the pavement, so you fall in the road trying to get round them." I said, "I'm sure just as many English people walk in groups of four on the pavement." He said, "Yes, but at least they do it in a language I can understand." Which at least is an original way to be annoyed, to snarl: "I don't mind falling in a puddle, as long as it's with the right mix of vowels and consonants, but when it's with three or even FOUR Zs it's time we took a stand."

Now that more are leaving than coming, the anti-immigration newspapers have to revert to more traditional complaints. For example, one paper told us that, "One immigrant is arrested every four minutes." But they must have been short of space, because they left out how the average for the whole population is one arrest every THREE minutes. Now they'll print a story that: "Immigrants are refusing to adapt to our way of life by only being arrested once every four minutes. If they don't want to follow our customs they should go back to where they came from."

Even then it turned out these figures were taken disproportionately from London, where the immigrant population is higher than across Britain, and anyone arrested for murder who didn't fill in the box marked "nationality" was assumed to be an immigrant. Because say what you like about a British murderer, at least they have the manners to complete a form in full afterwards.

But the most peculiar side of the obsession with foreigners coming over here disturbing our population figures is they have little to say about the British citizens living in other countries, the number of which has now passed five million. And yet they often have features about finding the perfect retirement home abroad: "Judith and Roger eventually settled on their delightful rustic cottage in the heart of the Loire, complete with two acres of arable pastures and a goat, from where they could suck dry the overstretched resources of the long-suffering local council. 'I'm a stranger in my own bleeding village', said one fed-up neighbour."

There are 760,000 of us living in Spain, one-twelfth of the population of Cyprus is now British, five per cent of New Zealand and so on. And we can hardly claim that on our travels we "adopt the customs of the local community", unless the travel companies claim: "Our popular party game of seeing who's first to drink a bottle of absinthe and puke in an egg cup topless is not only lots of fun, but also a tribute to an ancient fertility ritual here in Crete, and as such enhances the tourists' understanding of regional history and culture."

Most of the apocalyptic warnings of Eastern European takeover could be traced back to the organisation MigrationWatch, quoted uniformly by the most hysterical anti-immigration papers. But now the Poles are going the other way, instead of issuing a statement reading, "Whoops, sorry," they've declared the UK population is still destined to rise to an unsustainable 80 million in the next 40 years, because millions are coming here from Africa. That's it – Africa, BILLIONS of them, and they're bringing Mount Kilimanjaro because of our soft-touch summit payments, and all their giraffes and the Sahara desert...