- Created: Wednesday, 20 May 2009 12:06
- Written by Nicki Jameson
On 7 February Home Secretary Charles Clarke announced a new programme of measures to restrict immigration. A few days later Tony Blair made ‘Your country’s borders protected’ one of his six key election pledges. In January Conservative leader Michael Howard had promised an extensive range of vicious anti-immigration measures if his party wins the election. Racism is firmly on the ballot paper.
NICKI JAMESON reports.
Racism and immigration
Every anti-immigration announcement that has appeared in recent years has been prefaced by the same lip-service to ‘Britain’s proud tradition of welcoming genuine refugees’. Announcing measures that will clamp down on their ease of entry to Britain, Charles Clarke also sought to assure MPs of the government’s appreciation of tourists, migrant workers and overseas students. Such platitudes are worthless, and every single one is followed by a ‘but...’: ‘...but Britain has reached a turning point. Our communities cannot absorb any more refugees’ (Howard); ‘...but we cannot tolerate abuse of our asylum system [and] have enhanced our border security and have taken action to tackle illegal working, people smuggling and trafficking’ (Labour Party website).
There are several myths at work here simultaneously, including that the ‘proud tradition’ really existed unfettered in the first place. But the biggest lie of all is the claim that this is not a discussion about racism; that by calling it a debate on immigration, it is possible to avoid the fact that this election campaign is being conducted in an atmosphere of xenophobic rabble-rousing.
The Labour Party’s promises to the electorate on immigration are a blueprint for making permanent immigration to this country impossible for anyone other than the very rich. Its reliance on technology, surveillance, disincentive and destruction of family life to achieve this is undisguised. Asylum seekers are already being issued with ID cards holding their fingerprints and photographs. The government plans to introduce fingerprinting of all visa applicants and electronic checks on all those entering and leaving the country.
Labour is planning to drastically alter the asylum system. At present successful asylum seekers are granted indefinite leave to remain and those who have been in the country for five years in total can apply for British citizenship. Once indefinite leave is granted, unless the person is imprisoned for a criminal offence, it will not be reversed. The new system involves the granting of temporary leave, followed by a five-year waiting period during which the situation in the country they have fled remains ‘under review’. This uncertainty means that people fleeing war and oppression will be unable to fully settle in this country, either physically or psychologically. It also leaves the question of when a country is ‘safe’ in the hands of the British government. For example, occupied Iraq and Afghanistan are now presumably ‘safe’ as there have been ‘democratic’ elections.
More asylum seekers will be imprisoned in detention centres such as Yarl’s Wood, Campsfield House or Oakington, which was recently exposed by undercover journalists for its shockingly degrading and racist treatment of detainees. All these centres are run by private security companies, such as Global Solutions Ltd. The same companies also stand to gain money from government plans to introduce electronic tagging for those ‘unfounded asylum seekers’ it does not imprison, and are already heavily involved in carrying out the actual ‘removals’ process.
Clarke also announced an unashamedly class-based four-tier points system for people planning to come to Britain to work or study. Only those on tier one – ‘highly skilled migrants’, including doctors, engineers, IT specialists and finance experts – will be able to come to Britain without a job offer, and only they will be able to settle permanently.
The government also declared an end to what it disparagingly calls ‘chain migration’ – that is some members of a family migrating first, with other relatives joining them later.
With no hint of irony, the commitments listed by Labour on its website include ‘Continuing to make the case for migration as an important contribution to the UK, while countering those who stir up hatred, intolerance and prejudice.’
With the incumbent party already hell-bent on attacking immigrants, the Conservative Party has had to think of some even more draconian proposals than those currently promised by the government. These include pulling out of the 1951 Convention on Refugees and testing would-be economic migrants for HIV and TB. Labour has also mooted both of these at various times and most of the Tories’ other proposals are similar to those already being brought in by Labour. In reality there is little difference in the content, only in the style. Howard is more upfront than Blair, telling GMTV that ‘what we ultimately want to do is say that no one should apply for asylum in Britain. After all...you can only apply for asylum in Britain today if you’ve entered the country illegally or by deception. It’s an invitation to people to break the law.’
History and myth
Before the Aliens Act of 1905 Britain had no immigration controls. The Aliens Act was brought in at the time that large numbers of Jewish refugees were fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe and was designed specifically to limit their numbers. Media hysteria in support of the restriction was very similar to today’s tabloid outcries. For example, the Manchester Evening Chronicle headed a 1904 editorial ‘The Unwanted, the Unfed and the Unemployed’, and supported the proposed law on the grounds it would exclude ‘the dirty, destitute, diseased, verminous and criminal foreigner’.
In 1938, in the run-up to the Second World War, Britain brought in a visa requirement for German and Austrian nationals. The people hardest hit by this were again European Jews, who were fleeing Nazism.
Following the war, Britain invited immigration from the countries it had earlier colonised. This was not about welcoming refugees fleeing persecution but recruiting a cheap workforce. Caribbean and Asian workers were encouraged to come to Britain to take low-paid jobs. However, there was an almost immediate demand for controls, culminating in 1962 with the introduction of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act. This was followed by a further act of the same name in 1968 and the Immigration Act of 1971, which laid the ground for the panoply of controls and restrictions imposed by both Labour and Conservative governments on migrants ever since.
‘Economic migrants’ and asylum seekers
Depending on the dictates of British capitalism and the world political situation at any given time, the particular emphasis of British immigration control has varied. In some periods refugees fleeing persecution have been specifically targeted whilst economic migration has been tolerated or even encouraged; in others the aim has been to impose tight restrictions on economic migration whilst allowing limited asylum seeking. These shifts are always accompanied by a media attack on the group currently subject to the heaviest scrutiny.
The whole dichotomy between ‘refugees’ and ‘economic migrants’ is a false one as the reasons a person leaves their country and moves to another one are generally complex, and migration from poor nations to rich ones can never fail to be a result of imperialism, whether it manifests itself as the fleeing of political persecution, war and upheaval or as the search for a better, less poverty-stricken life, or as a combination of the two.
Racism and the election
The coming general election is being fought by racist political parties unashamedly whipping up hatred, with the full support of most sections of the media. Do not be fooled in any way that the ‘debate’ is about ‘immigration’ and not about ‘racism’. This is simply a sleight of hand that allows racist views to be aired in a way that is widely considered respectable. Say there are too many black people in London and you are a racist; say there are too many foreigners, asylum seekers, or people who don’t speak English, and you are having a debate about immigration.
This is how imperialism works. For us to acquiesce in the oppression of the people of other countries, the ruling class first has to convince us they are less than human. British colonialism and imperialism has done this successfully for years, and continues to do so as it wages its wars against the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Imperialist oppression creates migration, and the migrants therefore arrive in the oppressor nations already labelled and stigmatised. Britain has laws against racial discrimination but immigration laws are by definition exempt, as their very purpose is to prevent entry and stay in the country on grounds of nationality or ethnicity. In this situation some have weakly called for the implementation of ‘non-racist immigration controls’ but these cannot exist. In an imperialist nation that lives off the plunder and subjugation of poorer nations all immigration controls will necessarily be racist.
In the run-up to the last election in 2001 there was much talk of ‘keeping racism out of the election’ and, in the wake of the report into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, of outlawing institutionalised racism. But immigration laws are institutionalised racism and the main political parties are unashamedly campaigning to strengthen that racism still further. Just as no one who opposes the bloody war in Iraq should be able to bring themselves to vote for the party that began that war, no-one who is against racism should be able to vote for the party that has for the past eight years criminalised, imprisoned, deported and vilified thousands of men, women and children whose sole offence was to come to this country, seeking work or sanctuary.
Labour racism 1997-2005
Since coming to power, Labour’s attacks on immigrants and asylum seekers include:
• Withdrawal of all benefit from asylum seekers who did not lodge their asylum claims immediately on arrival
• ‘Voucher system’ whereby asylum seekers received no cash benefit but were kept from starvation by the provision of food vouchers
• ‘Dispersal system’ which sent asylum seekers to far-flung parts of the country and withdrew all support if they refused
• Creation of ‘reception’, ‘accommodation’ and ‘removal’ centres
• Prosecution of detainees who rebel against the conditions in detention centres or hostels and deportation of their witnesses
• Increased powers for immigration officers to arrest, detain, search and seize property
• Reduced rights for asylum seekers to appeal; reduced access to legal advice
• Deportation of hundreds of thousands of ‘failed’ asylum seekers, overstayers and others
• Immigration snatch-squads taking children from schools to detention
• List of ‘safe countries’ from which asylum claims are automatically rejected, visa restrictions for visitors from a range of others, and official racial discrimination against ‘Kurds, Roma, Albanians, Tamils, Pontic Greeks, Somalis, Afghans and “ethnic Chinese” travelling on Malaysian or Japanese travel documents’
• Legal compulsion of registrars to report ‘suspect marriages’
• The deaths of 58 Chinese men and women attempting to smuggle themselves into Britain in a lorry and racist murder of a ‘dispersed’ Kurdish asylum seeker in Glasgow.
FRFI 184 April / May 2005