Great Britain

In Britain and abroad, it’s easy to scapegoat poor migrants | Kenan Malik

The Dutch government has resigned over a child benefits scandal in which 26,000 families were wrongly accused of fraud by the tax authority. Thousands were unjustly forced to repay huge sums, driving many into ruin and divorce.

Some aspects of this are specific to Dutch politics but at its heart are themes that underlie politics elsewhere, not least in Britain.

The first is a suspicion of the “undeserving poor”, that they are out to scam the state and that the authorities have to be vigilant in tracking down benefit fraudsters. The second is suspicion of “undeserving migrants”. A Dutch parliamentary investigation found that authorities singled out people with foreign-sounding names or who were dual nationals. Both themes are significant in British policymaking.

The government’s refusal to extend free school meals into the holidays (again), the abject misery of the food boxes provided for families, Rishi Sunak’s unwillingness to extend the £20 universal credit uplift beyond April and the scandalous state of statutory sick pay all speak to what Sam Freedman observes in parliament’s House magazine as a deep-set wariness of the “moral failings” of the poor. Similarly, there is an ingrained suspicion of migrants, expressed in everything from unfounded claims about “benefit tourists” to Windrush.

Last week, Boris Johnson told a parliamentary committee that all migrants subject to the “no recourse to public funds” rule were in Britain unlawfully. In fact, the rule applies to the vast majority of “legal” migrants, as was pointed out to Johnson at the same committee in May. So ingrained is the suspicion of undeserving migrants, however, that it clearly had not registered. Some things never do.

• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist

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