British Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday announced a proposal to seize the wages of immigrants in the country illegally, treating the money as criminal proceeds, as part of a crackdown designed to reduce immigration to Britain.
“It has been too easy to work illegally and employ illegal workers here,” Cameron declared during a speech at the Home Office, which deals with visas and work permits. “So we'll take a radical step: We'll make illegal working a criminal offense in its own right.”
Cameron’s speech, coming just two weeks after a reelection campaign in which immigration was a prominent issue, coincided with the release new government statistics showing net migration to Britain had jumped to 318,000 people in 2014, an increase of 109,000 from previous the year.
The numbers, issued by the Office of National Statistics, proved embarrassing to Cameron, whose Conservative Party promised before the 2010 elections that brought him to power that it would reduce net annual immigration to fewer than 100,000 people.
Cameron is expected next week to announce a series of proposed laws to tackle illegal immigration, including forcing banks to check accounts of people who could be in the country illegally and giving local governments across Britain greater powers to evict those violating immigration laws.
Though the prime minister said in his speech that Britain is proud of its diversity and immigrant history -- “Poles who fought with us in the Battle of Britain; West Indians who helped rebuild our country after the war; Asians from East Africa and the subcontinent who have brought enterprise to our country” -- he has plans to lower demand for migrants by advancing the skills of British workers and fining companies that advertise for positions abroad before they do so at home.
Cameron and his party are being forced to come up with a strong stance on immigration, critics say, by both the statistics on migration and pressure from the right. UKIP, a political party that takes a strong nationalist anti-immigrant stance, won only one seat in Parliament during last month’s election but still pulled in more than 3.8 million votes nationwide, suggesting the popularity of one of its central tenets. Right-wing members of the prime minister’s own party also are pressing him on the matter.
“The Conservative Party, like all large parties, is a coalition with quite a range of opinion from socially responsible, paternalistic Tories to really quite ideologically radical-liberal economists to old fashioned right-wing xenophobes,” said Rodney Barker, a professor of government at the London School of Economics. “And unfortunately, what David Cameron is trying to do partly is to appease the right-wingers in his party, for whom Europe is bad enough but foreigner is even worse.”
There are concerns that criminalizing the wages of workers that are in Britain illegally could create serious human rights problems. Don Flynn, director of the London-based Migrants’ Rights Network, told the BBC that seizing wages would force some immigrants into systems of modern slavery without protection from the law.
“Their vulnerable status means they are confined to the most insecure and exploitative forms of employment, usually earning scarcely enough to maintain themselves on a day-to-day basis,” he warned.
Before speaking at the Home Office, Cameron met with immigration enforcement officers at a home in West London.
According to a Downing Street press officer, the immigration officials took the prime minister on a 20-minute tour of the property and told him about the raid they had made that morning, detaining a number of Sri Lankan students accused of overstaying their visas.
Brownell Mitic is a special correspondent.