Labour's racist asylum policy / FRFI 155 Jun /Jul 2000

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FRFI 155 June / July 2000

'The worldwide carnage and exploitation by British imperialism is the basis for racism in Britain...Any struggle against racism in Britain which does not struggle against British imperialism will inevitably fail because it leaves the basis of racism untouched...The racism and racial oppression within Britain today is a particular form of imperialist oppression. It is the form taken by national oppression within the oppressor nations.' (Revolutionary Communist 9 'Racism, imperialism and the working class', 1979) The Labour government is engaged in a vicious racist attack on refugees seeking asylum in Britain. While the Tories and tabloid press compete to employ the most vitriolic language against asylum-seekers, it is actually Labour which is implementing the policies of race hatred. NICKI JAMESON reports.

The 1999 Asylum and Immigration Act makes it illegal to carry any passenger into Britain who seeks asylum on arrival. Ignorance that the would-be refugee is in your lorry, coach or train is no defence and the punishment is £2,000 per 'clandestine' discovered. Refugees who do get into Britain or are already here are being forcibly 'dispersed' to any part of the country other than the southeast. This almost inevitably results in them having no access to anyone who speaks their language or can provide competent legal advice to prevent their being deported. Their only means of subsistence comes in the form of vouchers, which can only be spent at certain shops and for which it is legal and profitable for the retailers not to give any change.

The implementation of this vicious legislation in April was accompanied by a frenzy of racist propaganda, mainly targeted against east Europeans. Eastern Europe has been under sustained attack from western nations for many years, first as imperialism actively sought the destruction of communism, and then, having achieved this, as it strove to conquer the new capitalist market and extract as much profit as possible. The former Soviet Union and eastern bloc have been ravaged by the imposition of ruthless free-market economies bringing massive wealth for a tiny few and appalling poverty for millions. Unemployment, homelessness, part-time work, casualisation and insecurity have been foisted on people who had previously relied on stable employment and living conditions. The Balkans have been subjected to repeated military assaults; nationalism has been stoked up, wars waged, countries divided and destroyed.

In the six months from October 1999 to March 2000 there were 80,000 asylum applications to European countries from former socialist bloc nations (including Afghanistan): over half of the total of all applications. There are one million refugees from NATO's war in Yugoslavia alone.

Despite the Kurdish liberation movement's unilateral ceasefire, the genocidal policy of the western-backed Turkish regime against the Kurds also continues to result in thousands of refugees seeking sanctuary in Europe.

Worldwide, the number of refugees has risen from 2.5 million to 20 million in the past 20 years. Contrary to the scaremongering propaganda, the vast majority go to neighbouring countries, with less than 1% coming to Britain. In 1998, for example, Iran received 1.9 million refugees, Jordan 1.4 million and Pakistan 1.2 million.

'Real' and 'bogus' refugees

Like every government which has brought in anti-immigration laws, in the run-up to the passing of the 1999 Act Labour intoned the mantra that the new law would assist 'real' refugees but would weed out 'bogus' asylum-seekers and 'economic migrants' who seek to take advantage of our 'generous' benefits system.

Once the Bill had become law, the Conservative opposition scented an issue on which it could give the government a run for its money. Riding the tide of anti-refugee filth already dominating the press, the Tories denounced Labour as a 'soft touch' and announced their proposals for all asylum-seekers to be imprisoned on arrival. Labour is in fact working towards mass detention anyway, as indicated by the opening of the Oakington Detention Centre and confirmed by recently leaked memoranda. The Conservative Manifesto for the local council elections in May played to the fears of the most xenophobic sections of the middle class and labour aristocracy and was full of scaremongering about 'bogus asylum-seekers...flooding into Britain', apparently encouraged by Labour's lack of a firm hand.

The working class was similarly wooed by the fascist British National Party, which took 2-3% of the vote in the London mayoral and assembly elections, more than any left group. The BNP's election campaign centred on a leaflet headed 'Asylum Seekers? Longer hospital waiting lists? More wage cuts? More homelessness? Enough is enough! Isn't it time we put our own people first?'

Following a complaint by the Liberal Democrats – a party which has never itself hesitated to exploit racism in local elections – the United Nations High Commission on Refugees criticised both Tories and Labour for their use of inflammatory language about asylum-seekers.

In an act of supreme hypocrisy, the government then moved to distance itself from the Tories by rejecting the use of the words 'bogus', 'flooding' and 'swamped'. This suited Labour, not only because it could appear to be rejecting overt racism – to the relief of its Guardian-reading supporters – but because such language implies that the government is failing to cope.

A parliamentary debate on 12 April reflected the revamped approach, with the Tories continuing to shout about 'floods' of 'bogus refugees', while Labour switched to talking about the 'problem' of 'unfounded applicants'. This entirely semantic distinction did nothing whatsoever to disguise the real competition between government and opposition as to which could be most racist in practice.

Jack Straw congratulated himself on having taken 'early action' to impose visa restrictions on Slovakians, on recruiting 700 new staff to work in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate and on giving immigration officers the power of arrest. He crowed over having 'impounded a lorry and...expecting a fine of £100,000 in respect of the driver bringing in 50 clandestines' – a well-orchestrated capture he had gone to the port to witness in person – and boasted of having created 'expanded detention space' and 'much better regional enforcement capacity', while lamenting that 'removals have not been as fast as they should be'.

A week later he announced that 3,000 refugees, whom Britain had been compelled by other European countries to accept from NATO's 1999 war in Kosovo and whom it had made a sickeningly phoney show of welcoming with open arms, would be forcibly deported if they did not agree to return to their ravaged homeland voluntarily. In virtually the same breath, he declared that up to 20,000 members of families of white farmers fleeing Zimbabwe would be exempt from the degrading asylum system being imposed on other 'real' refugees (never mind the 'bogus' ones) and would automatically be given long-term leave to remain in Britain. This instant reward for the grandchildren of colonial economic migrants who left Britain to reap the spoils of imperialist domination of black Africa delighted erstwhile anti-apartheid campaigner and government minister Peter Hain, who has been loudly pleading the white farmers' cause.

Imperialist immigration laws are always racist

The 1999 Asylum and Immigration Act is the latest in a long line of increasingly draconian laws introduced throughout the 20th century, and in particular during the last 40 years. The first British immigration law was the 1905 Aliens Act, which was designed specifically to prevent the entry of impoverished East European Jews fleeing pogroms. This was followed by further Aliens Restrictions Acts in 1914 and 1919. In 1938 Britain introduced visa requirements for nationals of Germany or Austria, greatly reducing the ease with which Jews fleeing Nazism could seek asylum in Britain.

In the 1950s Britain encouraged immigration from the countries it had earlier colonised and plundered. Caribbean and Asian workers were invited to Britain to do low-paid

jobs and as 'Commonwealth citizens' were exempt from the immigration legislation then in force. However, there was an almost immediate clamour for controls, culminating in the introduction of the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act. Trinidadian communist Claudia Jones, then editor of the West Indian Gazette, was among those who spoke out against the Act, saying it reflected the government's fear of the 'unity of coloured and white workers'.

The 1962 Act was followed by a further Commonwealth Immigrants Act in 1968 and the Immigration Act of 1971. Since then control after control has been introduced. By the 1980s the government had largely dealt with the immigration of black 'Commonwealth citizens' by a series of measures, including changing the status of their British passports to an inferior one which removed the right to settle here. It then turned its attention once again to refugees, introducing visa controls for those fleeing Sri Lanka in 1985 and Ghana, Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India in 1986, in moves reminiscent of the earlier legislation to keep out persecuted Jews.

The 1990s saw a series of laws introduced, tightening restrictions on would-be asylum-seekers further and further. Legislation in Britain echoed provision across western Europe as 'Fortress Europe' was constructed and prepared to repel outsiders. The EU wants to maintain a pool of cheap labour outside its borders which it can use in the same way that the US exploits Mexico and Central America. It does not want people from Eastern Europe, the Middle East or elsewhere coming into Western Europe in a way it cannot control at will.

In an imperialist nation there cannot be any 'non-racist' immigration controls. Nor can anyone who comes to Britain or any other wealthy nation from a country ravaged by imperialist plunder be dismissed as an 'economic migrant', rather than a 'real refugee'. Imperialist oppression is both political and economic in character and fleeing it always has a political dimension. 

Race and class

While denouncing 'economic migrants' when they are poor, the government is seeking to smooth the path for middle class skilled workers who have medical, teaching, IT, scientific or other skills and wish to work in Britain. This will save the British state the costs of education and training. For such favoured workers bureaucracy will be reduced and the power to issue visas is even being experimentally handed over to multinational companies, who will be able to 'self-certify' employees they wish to bring to Britain from their operations abroad. Immigration controls are not only racist – they are clearly class-based as well. 

Divide and rule

The European ruling classes have traditionally used some of the super-profits plundered from the rest of the world to buy social peace in their own countries. This has generally taken the form of secure employment and welfare state provision, which have been used to buy the compliance of better-off sections of the working class. However, as the drive for greater profitability increases, and the working classes in European nations are increasingly casualised and impoverished, governments are anxious to ensure that any anger which develops in the future will not be directed against them or their middle class supporters. What could be easier than peddling the myth that jobs and services are under threat because of outsiders moving in, rather than the state pulling out? Refugees are visible targets, while the state's machinations are hard to see. The press is happy to whip up 'Council tax up to pay for asylum-seekers' headlines and fascist organisations provide an indispensable service by openly disseminating race-hate propaganda, allowing the state to keep its hands relatively clean and hypocritically condemn the brutal racist attacks which inevitably follow.

Such tactics are there to deter the European working class from uniting with immigrants in common struggle. Divide-and-conquer is always the motto and even the faint possibility of unity rings alarm bells. Witness, for example, the press rushing to vilify the Turkish communist organisations which participated in the London May Day demonstration alongside British anti-capitalist activists. It is in the government's immediate and long-term interests to smash such an alliance before it can be built upon, and it is the forging of such unity which is the key to fighting Labour's racist immigration laws.