Boris Johnson is facing a fierce backlash and claims of racism after saying migrants had been “treating Britain as their own” for too long.
With just a few days to go before the general election, the prime minister was accused of adopting an “anti-immigration dog whistle” tone and “blaming migrants for homegrown problems”.
Mr Johnson said he would reduce immigration using a points-based visa system, vowing to “bear down on migration particularly of unskilled workers who have no job to come to”.
He told Sky News that “over the last couple of decades or more... we’ve seen quite a large numbers of people coming in from the whole of the EU […] able to treat the UK basically as though it’s part of their own country.
“And the problem with that is that there’s basically been no control at all. And I don’t think that is democratically accountable.”
Campaigners and EU nationals were quick to challenge him on his claims, pointing out that many people had arrived in Britain without employment lined up but had gone on to work hard and build a life in the country.
Marie Donn, an HR officer in Essex, said her father came to the UK from Malta in the early seventies with “few skills” but ended up serving in the British Army for around a decade, before working in the ambulance service in Mr Johnson’s own constituency and then as an airport security manager.
The 44-year-old, who said she was previously “staunchly Conservative” but has changed her vote in the last five years, said: “All of these roles are exactly the kind you would want someone to feel invested in our country for. Treating this country as his own is exactly the kind of quality we would want him to have.”
Tony Manfredi, 67, whose grandfather came to the UK from Italy after the First World War and started his own business, said Mr Johnson’s remarks made him “very angry”.
“I had uncles who served in the British forces during World War 2. Most of my cousins, like myself, were born and educated in Britain, have or have had businesses employing local people. We have British values which blend with our Italian heritage and make us proud British Europeans.
“When my grandfather came to the UK he just wanted to be British. He worked, paid taxes, employed people because it was his country. Johnson forgets the contribution and sacrifice of millions of immigrants and that is unforgivable.”
Another EU citizen, who did not want to be named, said that after living in the UK for two decades since he was a toddler, Mr Johnson’s remarks had left him feeling “disheartened”.
The German national, who works in the higher education sector – which he said was his “way of giving back to the country that welcomed and raised [him]” – said: “Britain is the only home I can remember.
“To know that the leader of the only place I have ever called home doesn't believe I should treat this country as my home is disappointing to say the least.”
Ilona Mitchell, writing on Twitter, said: “So there we have it. Boris doesn’t seem to realise the NHS and many other industries would suffer greatly if EU migrants were all to leave. This is their home. Racist buffoon.”
Maike Bohn, co-founder of campaign group the3million, accused the prime minister of “demonising” EU migrants in his election campaign.
“Just a few weeks ago, EU migrants were Mr Johnson’s ‘friends, family and neighbours’, praised for their contribution. Now the tone has changed to an anti-immigration dog whistle from a prime minister blaming migrants for homegrown problems,” she said.
“He should know better, the government’s own report on the positive impact of immigrants contradicts his statements. But the truth does not matter in an election that demonises EU citizens to gloss over the Tory party’s own failure to create a prosperous and more equal society.”
Chai Patel, legal policy director at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said Mr Johnson’s attack on migrants for coming to the UK and making it their home was "disgraceful" and that his policy plans would be "hugely destructive" and make the UK a "more hostile and closed society".
During the interview, Mr Johnson explained that under his plans, migrants would be issued with one of three visas. He said those with “exceptional talents” such as “violinists, nuclear physicists, prima ballerinas” would be allowed to come to the UK “simply because of what they contribute”.
Skilled workers, including NHS staff, could come if they had a job lined up, he said. Unskilled workers would be granted short-term visas in sectors with shortages, but would not be able to stay for good.
He said: “I think people want to see democratic control. I don’t think people in this country are hostile to immigration at all, let alone being hostile to immigrants, but they want it democratically controlled and that’s what Brexit allows us to do.”
The prime minister's plans to force lower-skilled migrants to leave the UK after their work visas expire were attacked by business chiefs on Sunday, who said he was placing “too heavy an emphasis on the brightest and best” and warned that low-level skills were "still very much in demand for business".
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