Across the country, 371,100 – or six per cent – of benefits claimants are not from the UK, with the Yorkshire region having the fifth highest percentage, the first-ever study of claimants’ nationalities by the Department for Work and Pensions said.
A quarter came from within the European Union, 34 per cent from Asia and the Middle East and 27 per cent from Africa. Nationals from Pakistan topped the list of claimants, followed by Somalia and India.
The department announced that it would launch an investigation after the study – based on information collected in February last year – found that two per cent of claims were made by foreign nationals who did not have the immigration status to justify the payments.
But ethnic community campaigners in Yorkshire said sensationalising the figures would “tap into a bubbling racism against migrant communities”.
Dr Mohammed Ali OBE, chief executive of Bradford-based QED-UK, which finds employment for the city’s south Asian community, said: “There’s a danger of newspaper headlines generating a racist hysteria.
“Migrants are the first to condemn people making fraudulent claims, whether they are migrant or non-migrant. More than most, they are acutely sensitive of their work ethic.
“While no percentage of illegal claims should be condoned, two per cent is not as overwhelming as the headlines suggest.
“In an economic recession, people look for scapegoats. Let’s be guarded that the response to these recent figures is not one that fuels racism and remember the incredible positive contribution migration has made to the British economy.”
Dr Matt Cavanagh, associate director of think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research, said focusing on ethnic minorities missed the point of the “massive scale” of benefits.
He said: “Around 7,500 people who came here as foreign nationals are claiming benefits. Is that a massive problem?
“That works out at about one in 1,000 of the total number of people who are on out-of-work benefits.
“Clearly, it should be looked at and sorted out and the Government said it’s going to do that, but I don’t think tackling one in 1,000 of the people claiming out-of-work benefits is the way to reduce the overall welfare bill, which is what people are worried about.”
Sir Andrew Green, director of pressure group Migration Watch, said the “sheer scale” of immigration was putting Britain’s public services and benefits system under enormous strain.
He said: “If someone is legally in this country, if they’ve worked for several years, then clearly they should be entitled to benefits, especially if they have become citizens.
“However, people from Bulgaria and Romania who have come here, who have claimed to be unemployed, why?
“Because they are selling the Big Issue and they’ve got away with that and that has made them entitled to a range of benefits, even to housing benefit, that is absolutely absurd and that has to be tackled.”
The study showed that 48 per cent of foreign nationals – or 176,900 – claiming benefits lived in London.
British expatriates living in Europe are entitled to the equivalent benefits from the country they are living in as well as British benefits, the DWP said. At least 10,000 British emigrants are claiming benefits, including incapacity benefit and winter fuel allowance, costing almost £1m a week.