Racism and reaction: the Romanian and Bulgarian reception

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 237 February/March 2014

On 1 January restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants working in Britain were lifted. Previously, the restrictions meant that workers from these countries would need to apply for an ‘accession worker’s card’ from the Home Office in order to work, were not eligible for benefits and were restricted in the forms of employment that they could accept. Now, with the maximum seven years for these restrictions having expired, Romanians and Bulgarians will be able to live and work here with the same rights as citizens of other EU member states. The response from parliament and the media has been an avalanche of racism, reaction and scaremongering. JAMES BELL reports.

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Racism, poverty, and imprisonment – the plight of Syria's refugees

Three years of war in Syria have created a major refugee crisis. At least 2.3 million people have been forced over Syria's borders. Britain, France and other European governments are happy to fuel the war with money and weapons, but less generous when it comes to accommodating these refugees. The entire European Union has offered refuge, under a UN plan, to only 12,000 people – 0.5% of the total displaced. The vast majority are living in Syria's neighbouring countries. Those seeking to escape from these overcrowded and deprived situations face the militarised borders of the EU, immigration prisons, hostility and racism.

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Racism, lies and violence: scapegoating the Roma / FRFI 236 Dec 2013/Jan 2014

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 236 December 2013/January 2014

In November 2013, Labour’s former Home Secretary David Blunkett warned of a potential explosion in his Sheffield constituency if recently arrived Slovakian Roma migrants did not change ‘their behaviour and culture’. Deliberately raising the spectre of the 2001 uprisings in northern cities, by Asian youth who were described as insufficiently assimilated into British life, he accused the Roma of being anti-social, of dropping litter and congregating on the streets, saying: ‘We’ve got to be tough and robust in saying to people you are not in a downtrodden village or woodland, because many of them don’t even live in areas where there are toilets or refuse collection facilities. You are not there any more, you are here – and you’ve got to adhere to our standards.’

His comments were endorsed by LibDem deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who agreed that many people found the Roma ‘offensive’ and ‘intimidating’. The populist press immediately embellished the story with lurid – and unsubstantiated – accounts of prostitutes, feral children and, tellingly, a completely fictitious account of two Roma teenagers attempting to sell a fish-and-chip shop owner a baby for £250.

It is no coincidence that Blunkett’s comments followed hard on the heels of the ugly tale of the child snatched by police from her home in a Roma settlement in central Greece in October, simply because she was blonde and fair-skinned. When DNA tests did indeed show she was not the biological child of the couple she lived with, a vile, nakedly racist, media storm ensued: ‘Maria, the white angel’, screamed headlines, as wild rumours abounded about abduction, child trafficking and abuse. The Daily Mail described her as being ‘groomed as a child bride’, whose ‘fair skin’ would bring a lucrative dowry. Here was innocent white purity, ran the subtext, exploited by the dirty, criminal, darker-skinned people among whom she had been forced to live. Irish police followed suit, seizing two blonde Roma children (both hastily returned to their families as DNA tests proved positive). When ‘Maria’ turned out not to be an Aryan white angel, but the child of a Bulgarian Roma woman forced by poverty to give up her baby after working as a seasonal labourer in Greece, interest died away. Maria became just another Roma child, like millions of others condemned to poverty, segregation and exclusion. In 2012 Amnesty International described the Roma as ‘the most persecuted and reviled group’ in Europe. 84% of Europe’s 12 million Roma live in poverty, routinely denied housing, health care, education and work. Many live in isolated slums without running water or electricity; they are subjected to forced evictions, racist assaults and police brutality. Average Roma life expectancy is ten years less than that of national populations.

But, in times of crisis the virulent ancient lies are reborn, as they have been since the Middle Ages – that the Roma are by nature criminal and anti-social and, most pernicious of all, that they steal children.

In reality, there are no documented cases of Roma abducting children from another community. However, there are hundreds of examples of Roma children being forcibly removed from their parents, or subjected to trafficking and abuse. For example in Greece – so outraged by the case of Maria, so indifferent to the Roma children living in poverty on the fringes of its cities – between 1998 and 2002, 502 Albanian Roma children, who had been rounded up by Greek police ‘disappeared’ from a state-run children’s home in Athens. A suppressed police report suggests that they were trafficked, for €500 each, into prostitution or human organ sales. Only four were ever found.

As state forces whip up hatred against the Roma, vicious racist attacks, including bombings, shootings and the torching of homes, are on the rise across Europe, especially in Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. Making the Roma scapegoats at a time of economic insecurity and austerity is an age-old tactic, in Britain as in the rest of Europe. Writing in The Guardian (18 November 2013) Gary Younge is right to say the real danger in Sheffield is not a riot but a pogrom.

Cat Wiener

Repression and resistance in immigration removal centres / FRFI 236 Dec 2013/Jan 2014

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 236 December 2013/January 2014

On 15 September, The Observer published the testimony of ‘Tanja’, a former detainee at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre (IRC), run by private company Serco. Tanja described the blackmail and sexual abuse heaped upon detainees by Serco employees in graphic detail. Her testimony ranged from accounts of guards promising favours or offering to make life easier, saying they would have more chance of winning their case or staying in the country in return for sexual favours, to accounts of rape: ‘There were two occasions when I was made to do “blow jobs”... [The guard] was well aware that I did not want to’. Tanja’s experience is by no means unique. In her testimony, she stated that several other women were abused, one guard boasting of sexual behaviour with at least four women.

Exact statistics for abuse in IRCs are difficult to find. The Home Office admits to only four complaints of a sexual nature from detainees since 2008. However, as Tanja’s case shows, sexual assault is accompanied by blackmail to ensure silence. Following her initial complaint in December 2012, Tanja was bullied by Serco staff: ‘Some of the officers said I was lying, they started giving me the cold shoulder. I didn’t feel comfortable leaving my room for weeks. I felt very isolated and started self-harming’. This intimidation was used to make her withdraw her complaint: ‘They told me that they are going to take me to court about making the complaint because there is no evidence.’ This internal bullying was complemented by racist persecution from the Home Office. Within days of Tanja’s complaint, another notice for her removal was issued. A key witnesses in the Yarl’s Wood sex inquiry, Sirah Jeng, was detained on 31 October, and threatened with deportation to Gambia before being able to give testimony. Sirah has since been released and has spoken out publicly against the abuse of detainees.

As Harriet Wistrich, Tanya’s lawyer, has stated, this is the ‘tip of the iceberg’ and has only become public because of Tanja’s determination and persistence. Wistrich also points to cuts in legal aid as aiding this kind of abuse: ‘The women in Yarl’s Wood are some of the most vulnerable you can imagine…The state has a duty to investigate such serious allegations, but it has repeatedly failed. Now the government wants to remove legal aid altogether for detainees and foreign nationals, giving a green light to abuse at Yarl’s Wood to continue.’

On 29 November, Isa Muazu, who was detained at Harmondsworth IRC, was put on a plane to Nigeria, having been on hunger strike for over 100 days. He told supporters: ‘I am refusing to eat because my asylum claim was not treated fairly and I will not give up my protest ... now I am a skeleton and almost dead. There is so little of me left and I am not afraid. But [the authorities] have not treated me as a human being and that is wrong’. On 25 November Isa lost an appeal to be released from detention in order to receive medical treatment. Although he was close to death, the Home Office judged Isa ‘fit to fly’ and arranged to deport him on a privately chartered special flight, at vast expense. But the Nigerian government refused to allow the plane to land and Isa is now back in detention in the UK.

The determination of detainees to resist the racism of the British state has a long history and shows the way forward for all anti-racist campaigners. In 2012, hundreds of women at Yarl’s Wood went on hunger strike in solidarity with a women dragged naked from her cell by guards. Our response must be to support detainees and their resistance.

James Bell

Theresa May’s Immigration Bill – lies, half-truths and more repression / FRFI 236 Dec 2013/Jan 2014

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 236 December 2013/January 2014

Amidst a climate of increasing state and media racism typified by government-sponsored vans featuring anti-immigrant ‘Go home!’ adverts and a Daily Express campaign against Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants which would not have been out of place in Nazi Germany, on 10 October Home Secretary Theresa May introduced the Immigration Bill 2013, which it is anticipated will become law in spring 2014. Nicki Jameson reports.

The Bill’s introduction was accompanied by a flurry of publicity, most of which centred on May trumpeting how living in Britain would become ‘tougher for illegal immigrants’. Most of the Bill does not relate directly to illegal immigration but this did not prevent May, when interviewed by the BBC on the morning of 10 October, using the word ‘illegal’ every time she said ‘immigrant’ and ‘hardworking’ every time she said ‘tax-payer’.

Like her cabinet colleagues Chris Grayling and Michael Gove, to name just two, May never likes the truth to get in the way of a good rant, especially one that deflects the unpopular actions of her government onto some popular bogeymen. How neat then that lack of funding and resources in the NHS is suddenly nothing to do with government policy or privatisation, but almost entirely the fault of ‘health tourists’. Mention these so-called free-loaders in the same sentence as ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘foreign criminals’ and you have a neat spectre of Britain’s health service under attack, not by profiteering private companies cutting corners to win contracts, but by illegal immigrants, who are probably criminals as well, coming to Britain especially to get free health care.

Of course the truth is a far cry from this and, as deputy chairman of the British Medical Association Dr Richard Vautrey told BBC Radio 5live: ‘The reality is that people don’t come to the UK to use the NHS; they’re more likely to come to work in the NHS.’

The main focus of the Immigration Bill is indeed to make life more difficult for migrants. Procedures already in place for checking the residence status of people applying for driving licences or opening bank accounts and for scrutinising marriage applications to see if they are ‘sham’ are being put on a statutory footing. Alongside this, new measures are being introduced to require private landlords and doctors’ surgeries to check the immigration status of prospective tenants/patients.

In theory landlords will be required to check the status of everyone and then only rent to those who can provide confirmation of their right to reside in Britain. In practice, this is a backdoor return to the infamous days of ‘No blacks, no Irish, no dogs’.

Even before this latest Bill comes in, a Runnymede Trust survey found that 29% of black Caribbean, 28% of black African and 27% of Pakistani respondents had been discriminated against when trying to rent private housing, as opposed to 1% of white British people surveyed. An undercover investigation by the BBC’s Inside Out London programme found ten estate agents in northwest London who were prepared to go along with requests from undercover journalists posing as racist landlords and assure them that their properties would not be let to black people.

As Maurice Mcleod wrote in The Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’: ‘In her drive to make Britain “a hostile environment for illegal immigrants”, the home secretary is likely to hand bigoted private landlords, and the compliant agents they employ, another valuable tool. Agents will be able to point to the new law and say they are forced to require immigration documents, or at least proof of Britishness, from anyone whose face doesn’t fit.’

Other measures include the speeding-up of administrative removal of overstayers and others with no legal status by ceasing to require notice to be given of intention to remove, and increased powers for immigration officers to use force.

The response of the Labour Party to the introduction of this racist Bill was to complain – not about any of the repressive measures contained in it but that it contained nothing which would tackle Britain’s ‘increasingly shambolic’ border controls or deal with the ‘bureaucratic failings that have prevented foreign criminals being deported’.

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