Why 'Brexit' proponents are focusing on immigration

Boris Johnson, the former London mayor, said Thursday that numbers showing Britain gained 333,000 people last year through immigration prove leaving the EU is the only option.

Toby Melville/Reuters
A British government Home Office van is seen parked in west London earlier this month. Polls show immigration is a key voter concern ahead of a June 23 referendum on Britain's EU membership, and that those who want to leave the bloc have made taking back control of the borders a central plank of their campaign.

As Britain’s vote on whether to leave the European Union nears, campaigners in favor of a “Brexit” are using immigration numbers that show the country gained 333,000 people through immigration last year to bolster their case.

They argue figures released Thursday by the Office of National Statistics show that Britain’s current policies have failed to control immigration and that leaving the 28-member bloc is the only option.

Boris Johnson, the former London Mayor and a leading “leave” campaigner, called the promises made by Prime Minister David Cameron to cut immigration “cynical.”

“You see the pressure on public services, you see the waiting lists in hospitals, in GP surgeries and of course in schools,” he told the Associated Press. “People are feeling it and what they resent is the lack of control.”

The debate, which has reverberated everywhere from Britain’s curry houses to stereotypes of the “Polish plumber” dependent on government assistance, mirrors similar concerns about the impact of immigration roiling Europe and the US.

But the increasingly heated rhetoric – Mr. Johnson at one point likened the EU’s aims in creating a “superstate” to Adolf Hitler’s ambitions to dominate Europe – has prompted a stronger response from some European officials who had previously approached the “leave” campaign cautiously.

In a speech at the G-7 summit in Japan Thursday, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, argued Johnson had gone too far.

Noting that Johnson had spent time in Brussels as a journalist, Mr. Juncker said he should check in to see “if everything he is telling the British people is in line with reality – I do not think so.”

Throughout the debate, the government has maintained its stance that leaving the EU would “wreck” the economy and “destroy” jobs for workers. Last month, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne unveiled a study warning that a “leave” vote could cost individual households £4,300 ($6,100) a year by 2030.

“Leaving the EU is absolutely no panacea or silver bullet,” Home Office minister James Brokenshire told the BBC. He argued that Mr. Cameron’s renegotiation of membership would crack down on “sham marriages” and “close backdoor routes” into the country in order to ease concerns about immigration.

A Financial Times “poll of polls” found that staying in the EU holds a slight advantage over leaving among voters, 46 to 40 percent. Many of the polls reviewed by the paper showed a slight increase in voters favoring a position to stay, though some showed the two positions were neck and neck.

The debate over the future of Britain’s curry houses, where cooks from Romania are increasingly coming to replace those from Bangladesh, is one that “leave” campaigners have seized on, the BBC reports.

Many British people with roots in Commonwealth countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh say there is a double standard” when it comes to immigration from the EU. For Indian restaurants, more restrictive rules on immigration have made importing workers from Commonwealth countries far more expensive, forcing restaurants to close.

Britain’s employment minister, Priti Patel, who is a prominent “Leave” campaigner, has even claimed that a vote to leave the EU is the only way to save the curry industry.

But some are skeptical of that position. “If immigration were to be brought down, even by half, there would still be no onus from any politician to say, 'Ok now because we have less people coming from the EU, let's bring in more people from the Commonwealth,'" Jeffrey Ali, head of Le Raj, an Indian restaurant in Surrey, told the BBC. He says he plans to vote to stay in the EU.

Mr. Johnson, who is a fellow member of the prime minister’s Conservative party, argued that his stance was not anti-immigrant, but told the BBC the government’s promises to keep immigration to the "tens of thousands" had been a “mistake.”

The statistics office says there was a 20,000 increase in net migration compared to 2014, a near-record. The 333,000 figure is the difference between people coming to Britain last year — 630,000 — and 297,000 who left.

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