Nigel Farage
Ukip leader Nigel Farage wants Britain out of the EU to curb migrationGetty Images

"They're coming over here and scrounging benefits‎. And if they're not doing that, they're taking our jobs." ‎Those are the unlikely sentiments expressed to me in recent days by fellow British Asians about Eastern Europeans, to explain why they will vote to leave the EU in the upcoming referendum.

‎The irony that the very same and equally untrue words were spoken about us just a few decades ago, when we were the newest immigrants to Britain, seems entirely lost on these people. They are not even aware of their hypocrisy.

It is a powerful force indeed that can make Asian immigrants, and their descendants, turn on those who have followed them to these shores with similar aspirations to build a better life. One that can make the past victims of these horribly narrow-minded attitudes become willing to direct the same prejudice at other human beings.

‎Such is the invidious force that has been unleashed - in a very deliberate and cynical manner - by Brexit campaigners in the last week or so. Their campaign, if it can be so called, always carried certain undertones of xenophobia, but now they have scratched away whatever veneer of respectability they may have had.

The gloves are off and the debate has turned rather ugly. Trailing by a clear margin in most of the polls and facing the prospect of a decisive defeat, they have chosen to take refuge in the tactics of desperation.

After losing virtually all the arguments on other key issues such as the economy and national security, they are putting all their efforts into playing their trump card. Well their only card, in fact - immigration.

Brexit's political leaders, and their backers in the media, believe they've touched a raw nerve and they will no doubt exploit it with unrelenting vigour in the final weeks up to the June 23rd poll.

But they are not engaging in a reasoned argument about how and why Britain will be better off if we leave the EU to limit immigration by ending the free movement of citizens from other European countries. Instead, they are making a very conscious appeal to that most base and primal of human instincts – the fear of the 'other'.

‎This sinister and overt xenophobia deserves the deepest condemnation. It may be expected in some quarters of the media, but it is utterly contemptible coming from the likes of Boris Johnson - who has previously described himself as "the only politician I know of who is actually willing to stand up and say he's pro-immigration". He and colleagues such as Michael Gove are so determined to defy their own convictions - and unfairly demonise well-intentioned immigrants in the process – that the former Tory prime minister John Major said they should be "embarrassed and ashamed at how they have misused this issue".

But rather than accept the admonishment, the Brexiteers have upped the ante in recent days.

First they leapt upon figures from the Office for National Statistics showing net migration rose to 330,000 last year, more than three times the government's target limits. Hysterical and hyperbolic language proclaimed that – with 184,000 of the total coming because of Europe's free movement rules – this was conclusive proof that Britain had lost control of its borders and will be completely overrun unless it leaves the EU.

When I have suggested in my recent conversations with fellow British Asians that their attitude may be a touch hypocritical, they have countered that the new immigrants are nothing like our community. We came to work and contribute, while they come to scrounge and take.

Then, earlier this week, the disingenuous Messrs Johnson and Gove peddled the myth that the country will handpick only immigrants of the highest quality via an Australian-style points system once it leaves the EU. They of course failed to mention that this fabled system lets in almost three times as many migrants per head of population to Australia than come to Britain.

Meanwhile, their acolytes in the press deliberately conflated stories about an apparent 'invasion' of 18 Albanians across the Channel in a rubber dinghy with their other referendum coverage – even though Albania is not a member of the EU.

But the facts don't matter. The point is that Albanians, like the fellow non-EU member Turks who were previously invoked by scaremongering Brexiteers, are the most 'foreign' of all the people in Europe. So why not just throw them into the mix too?

By doing that they can create the fictional sense of a great swarm, an undesirable horde standing at the gates as long as Britain remains a member of the EU. Mr Gove added to the paranoia by expressing his great frustration, as justice secretary, at being completely unable to refuse entry to European criminals and "even some who are suspected of terrorist links".

It's an appeal not to reason, but to the darkest and most negative emotions. The Remain campaign may be described, with some justification, as Project Fear, but this is Project Nasty. Which is far worse.

And unfortunately it works, as the latest polls show a swing to Leave after this strategic shift. It is so effective that it causes people who know how hurtful and inhumane a knee-jerk hostility to immigrants can be to indulge in the very same sentiment against others.

When I have suggested in my recent conversations with fellow British Asians that their attitude may be a touch hypocritical, they have countered that the new immigrants are nothing like our community. We came to work and contribute, while they come to scrounge and take.

But this allegation is completely untrue, just as it was when levelled at Asian immigrants in the latter decades of the last century. Repeated studies have shown that EU immigrants, including those from Eastern Europe, contribute considerably more to the economy than they take out. One piece of research from University College London said that recent European migrants are far less likely than the indigenous population to claim benefits and overall pay 34% more in taxes than they take in welfare payments.

But such evidence is drowned out while the Leave campaign engages in politics of the gutter. Its tactics have become so similar to those of Ukip at the last general election that Nigel Farage was able to tweet this week: 'Everything I've said on immigration, for which I've been condemned, is now mainstream. I now believe we will win this referendum.'

All I would say to others of immigrant descent – and indeed to anyone else - is that when you start thinking like the leader of Ukip wants you to think, then you know you're not in the realms of sense, rationality and humanity.

The longer the referendum debate is waged along these ugly lines, the more damage is being wrought to the social fabric of this nation. Irrespective of the result on June 23, the most urgent task of all campaigners in the aftermath will be to reverse the ill-feelings they have created.