June 7, 2016 / 10:32 AM / a year ago

Start talking up immigration in EU debate, Scottish minister says

Hamza Yousaf the Scottish Government's Transport Minister speaks during an interview in the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, Scotland, Britain, June 1, 2016. REUTERS/Russell Cheyne

EDINBURGH (Reuters) - Those campaigning for Britain to stay in the European Union need to start talking about the benefits of immigration instead of dodging the issue, says the leader of the Scottish National Party’s “In” campaign who is a son of immigrants.

“Immigration is a two-way street, and the Brits benefit from it,” Humza Yousaf, also Scottish transport minister, told Reuters in an interview.

The only Muslim Scottish minister, he took his oath in Urdu and English dressed in a traditional Pakistani sherwani combined with a Scottish kilt. Yousaf’s parents are from Pakistan.

Immigration is at the heart of the debate ahead of Britain’s June 23 referendum on whether to remain in the EU, and the perception amongst some voters that immigration is uncontrolled is seen as one of the main weaknesses of the “In” camp.

“Out” campaigners argue that London cannot control immigration because nationals of the other 27 EU members states are free to move to Britain, a line of argument that “In” campaigners have struggled to deal with.

But 31-year-old Yousaf, who lives in Glasgow with his wife, said a more positive tone on immigration would be a better strategy than avoidance.

“We shouldn’t be shy about the facts regarding immigration and the gains we have had because of it,” said Yousaf.

Those arguing for Britain to stay in the EU, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, have largely preferred to focus on the economic risks of quitting the bloc.

In many parts of Britain, especially in England, immigration is seen as a drag on wages and public services after a huge influx of EU nationals over the past decade.

Viewed from Scotland, however, immigration is easier to talk about positively because the country needs to import labor due to its aging, shrinking population in many rural areas and skill shortages elsewhere.

This north and south policy mismatch has been highlighted by the case of the Brains, an Australian family who came to Scotland during a drive to boost the rural population and now battling deportation under rules which changed after they arrived, an attempt to curb immigrant numbers in Britain as a whole.

“CRASS” ARGUMENT

Yousaf cited the election of Sadiq Khan, another Briton of Pakistani origin, as mayor of London last month as proof that some voters are more sophisticated than politicians perhaps give them credit for.

“It’s a great symbol for the UK´s capital city to be led by someone not just from an immigrant background but someone of Islamic faith, when everything in Europe indicates that people are turning more hostile towards Muslims,” he said, decrying an election campaign which attempted to link Khan to Islamists.

“Using the threat of terrorism is particularly crass as an argument to try to scare people into voting one way or the other.”

One of the main points of those campaigning to leave the EU is that Britain, if no longer an EU member, would be able to itself determine on its own terms who comes into the country. Those wishing to take Britain out currently have a slight lead over those wishing to remain.

The vote is expected to be in favor of EU membership in Scotland alone, although much depends on turnout. Scotland has about 3.9 million registered voters, out of a total of 44.7 million across the United Kingdom’s four constituent parts.

Another complication is that Scotland’s devolved government has said there may be grounds for a second referendum on independence from the rest of the UK if Scotland votes to remain on June 23 and the rest of Britain votes to leave.

Yousaf says he was politicized as a teenage schoolboy by wanting to explain the positives of his culture after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

“I remember ... going into school the next day and being asked by teenage friends who normally talked about football, ‘Why do Muslims hate America?’ For the first time I wasn’t quite sure if I belonged where I was.”

He has already been international development minister for the devolved Scottish government, which wants independence for Scotland, and is now transport minister.

“I hope people see me and think ‘there´s a guy who is comfortable with all aspects of his identity’, whether it’s in a kilt or a sherwani, whether with a chapati in one hand or chips in the other.”

Reporting By Elisabeth O'Leary; Editing by Estelle Shirbon and Peter Millership

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