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A few years ago in the predominantly Indian quarters of Southall, you could hire a gardener, a bricklayer or a handyman from a crowd of illegal Punjabi immigrants assembled in the back streets behind the main Southall gurdwara. Dozens of these daily wage earners would wait every morning for wealthy Asians in expensive cars, looking for cheap labour.
As the recession deepened, opportunities disappeared, earnings declined and, in many cases, drugs began to devastate the lives of the illegal immigrants, who came mainly from Indian Punjab. Many who couldn’t afford rents began to sleep under bridges and covered shop fronts.
As immigration controls tightened, businesses employing illegal migrants faced fines of up to £ 10,000. In 2013, more than 8,500 illegal immigrants and foreign offenders were deported, and approximately 5,000 applications for asylum were rejected, forcing applicants to leave the country.
Curry houses struggled to find chefs, temples and gurdwaras could not bring in priests from India, and sub-standard colleges were derecognised, shutting an immigration route taken by fake Indian students who stayed on after the expiration of their student visas.
And worst of all, whatever jobs remained in recession-hit Britain, particularly in the building trade, were taken up the Poles and the Romanians who, as EU citizens, had no need to hide from immigration authorities.
It isn’t surprising then, that many Asian business and community leaders appear convinced that if Britain leaves the EU on June 24, Commonwealth citizens from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh will have more job opportunities.
Asked how leaving the EU might benefit British Asians, an official spokesperson for the Leave campaign told The Indian Express: “British Asians have roots originating in the Commonwealth. These countries have deep historical and cultural ties with Britain, and yet being in the EU has prevented us from strengthening these links. We have a biased immigration policy, which turns away the brightest and the best from countries like India.
“The EU has failed to do a free trade deal with India, despite beginning talks in 2007. If we vote Leave, British Asians will be part of a nation that is sovereign, and chooses who to have free trade deals with.”
Leave is indeed working hard to promote this impression. A cross-party, non-partisan group called Muslims for Britain has asked in a leaflet, “Why it is harder for a qualified doctor or a software engineer from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or the Middle East to come to Britan than it is for an unskilled worker from Poland and Romania?”
But this, says Remain, is a complete — and possibly wilful — misreading of the situation. Immigration control is here to stay. Prime Minister David Cameron’s government is committed to cutting net migration from the current 362,000 a year to under 100,000.
It’s going to be difficult. Critics say Cameron has not devoted enough resources to effective immigration control. In 2014-15, the budget for immigration control was £ 1.8 billion — 0.25% of the total government expenditure of £ 700 billion.
Indian-origin MP Seema Malhotra says the choice between the Commonwealth and EU is a “false” choice — “all of us gain from being in both. Even Prime Minister Modi, and so many Indian businesses I speak to, say companies that trade with us gain from the access that Britain brings to the single market.”
Prominent corporate lawyer Sarosh Zaiwalla says Brexit will create problems for about 800 Indian companies based in the UK and generating a turnover of about £ 26 billion. “If the UK decides to leave the single market, these Indian companies will have to set up additional operational structures in Europe, raising business costs substantially.”
So why are some Asian businesses and community organisations supporting the Leave campaign?
According to a study by Runnymede Trust, a leading race relations think tank, some black and minority ethnic people “view Europe in explicitly ethnic or racial terms, identifying Fortress Europe as a way of keeping out non-white immigrants while allowing significant levels of European migration”.
The alleged manipulation of Asian sentiment by Leave has angered many. Veteran Labour MP Keith Vaz called it “divide and rule politics of the worst kind.”
Though Leave remains ahead in opinion polls, support for it has slipped in the past few days. The brutal killing of Labour MP Jo Cox and UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s xenophobic ‘Breaking Point’ poster has swung the pendulum slightly toward Remain.
On Monday, the former Conservative party chairperson, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi threw a bombshell, switching from Leave to Remain. “Unfortunately, what we are seeing as a vision for Britain are lies and xenophobic campaigning… Because day after day, what are we hearing? The refugees are coming, the rapists are coming, the Turks are coming,” she said on the BBC Radio 4 programme, Today.
Zaiwalla said, “By voting Leave, we would be taking a huge risk. We do not want to live in a fragmented society. In these times of globalisation, we don’t want to be surrounded by rightwing, xenophobic and Britain-for-Britons-only people. And it will not stop here. You can hear rightwing voices rising across Europe, in Austria, Spain, Greece, Poland. That kind of Europe we surely do not want.”