Hypocrisy over the immigrants

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The Independent Online
THE SUBJECT of economic migrants, people who travel to foreign countries to take advantage of the good life on offer there, has been exercising the Daily Mail. On Friday one of them was given space to tell her own story, beginning with an emotional early-morning farewell to her children. "Say goodbye in the dark. It's 5am!" Her husband was "pale" at the prospect of what lay ahead, offering last-minute advice which she barely heard. When she arrived the locals had difficulty understanding her "pidgin" version of their language, tapping their foreheads and muttering incomprehensibly.

Bravely, she pressed on with her mission, heading for, well, a department store. Where else would a serious economic migrant go? Within minutes she was the proud owner of a Steiff bear, a Lejaby bra, a set of Le Creuset casserole dishes, a microwave oven. "Vive la pounds 500 difference!" the Mail enthused, explaining that its reporter "did all her Christmas shopping in Paris ... and saved a fortune". It even trailed the feature on its front page, above news of a "police swoop" on 100 asylum-seekers who had arrived in Kent.

The welcome they received was rather different, the paper admitted, from its reporter's experience. "Dozens of officers, several with dogs, took more than two hours to round up 104 men, women and children," it reported. Men in uniforms, barking dogs, distressed children - to anyone but a die- hard Mail reader, there is something disturbing about this scenario, especially in the context of other round-ups of foreigners in the 20th century. The Mail ignored the connotations, if indeed it was aware of them, observing that the investigation had been hampered by "the fact that hardly any of them spoke English". Typical foreigners.

Obviously the Romanians were not here to go shopping. But I am always amazed by the hypocrisy which surrounds discussion of immigration to wealthy nations such as Britain. Throughout the Cold War, people in Communist- ruled countries were bombarded with messages about the joys of free-market economics - and yet we complain when, seduced by the message and dismayed by conditions at home, Romanians or Albanians or Bosnians try to come here. The truth is that illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers, some of whom have been tortured, face a hard time when they get here. Of course this is not how the Mail sees it, categorising them either as greedy foreigners or violent criminals who come here to rape, rob and murder.

"Brutal crimes of the asylum- seekers," it declared on Monday, revealing an "appalling casebook" of serious offences committed by young men who arrived seeking refuge. Many others, it said, have appeared in court on minor charges, such as shoplifting and pickpocketing. Of course no one would deny the dreadful effect of these crimes on their victims. But the Mail's xenophobic response ignores two crucial points. One is that people who arrive in Britain illegally cannot claim state benefits, a disastrous situation which drives some of them into petty crime.

The other is that some are disturbed precisely because they have been brutalised at home, in places like Iraq and Kosovo. They need psychiatric treatment which they are unlikely to get in their grim, privately run detention centres. It is not surprising that, when they are released, some of them act out their disturbance by committing violent crimes. Nor does it prove, as some claim, that their applications were bogus in the first place. It does suggest that our system for dealing with asylum- seekers is neither compassionate nor effective. In the circumstances, triumphalist accounts of police pursuing terrified children across fields seem peculiarly out of place - as does the Mail's paean to cut-price shopping opportunities abroad.

I WOULDN'T mind so much if these outbreaks of xenophobia were confined to the Daily Mail, but they are not. Last week's papers, broadsheet and tabloid alike, gave the impression that even when foreigners aren't trying to sneak into our country in vans, they cannot resist meddling with our taxes and our system of justice. "Alarm over Euro-wide justice plan" was the headline in Monday's Telegraph, announcing the early stages of a plan to replace the British trial system with Continental-style investigating magistrates. "The scheme being proposed is so outrageous," harrumphed a leader, "that accurate analysis risks sounding hysterical" - as though a system notorious for miscarriages of justice, such as the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, has anything to crow about.

But the real villain of the week - "the most dangerous man in Europe" , according to the Sun - was the German finance minister Oskar Lafontaine, who wants to harm- onise taxes. The Sun reverted to form with a burst of Kraut-bashing. Denying it had used computer technology to darken Mr Lafontaine's teeth in a photograph, the paper sneered: "Not a chance. That nasty smile is all Oskar's". When the British are so infantile, it makes you wonder why foreigners want to come here at all.