A rising tide of racism against migrants and refugees

Refugees and migrants continue to struggle for entry to Europe, driven by war, repression and poverty created by imperialism. European states are attempting to reassert control, extending the repressive apparatus at Europe’s borders while increasing surveillance and reducing migrants’ rights within Europe. Tom Vickers reports.

Fortress Europe reorganises its defences

At the end of October representatives of 11 EU and Balkan states agreed a 17-point plan including: reception centres to house 100,000 newly-arrived refugees and migrants in Greece and along the western Balkans route; increased deportations and cooperation with governments receiving deportees in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iraq and Pakistan; additional assistance from the UN refugee agency; increased surveillance and registration of migrants by Frontex, the EU’s border agency; coordinated action between Europol, Interpol and local police against people smugglers; and an agreement that states will no longer facilitate the movement of migrants to the border of another country.

This plan is a reconsolidation of the arrangement by which those who cannot be kept out of Europe altogether will be contained in a peripheral zone, away from the main imperialist states of western Europe. In line with this, on 10 November the German Interior Ministry announced Germany would be renewing its use of the Dublin Regulation to return Syrian refugees to the first EU country where they were registered. The reaction to the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November again called these arrangements into question, with officials from Poland, Slovakia and the German state of Bavaria expressing new reservations, and sections of the media claiming spurious links between refugee movements and the Paris attacks.


Calais is the main entry point to Britain for those unable to secure passage on a plane. The number of refugees and migrants camped there continues to rise, with a current estimate of 6,000. In October academics at Birmingham University published a detailed report into environmental health conditions in the camp referred to as the ‘jungle’. They found inadequate food storage facilities contributing to widespread vomiting and diarrhoea, unsafe drinking water, only one usable toilet per 75 residents, insufficient health care, overcrowding leading to widespread scabies, leaking shelters leading to soaking bedding with little opportunity to dry it, and smoke inhalation from fires used for cooking and warmth leading to throat irritation and breathing difficulties. The report also highlighted the risk of fire created by ‘structures in close proximity, constructed of flammable materials, heated and lit with naked flames, and with no means of fighting fire or raising the alarm’. On 14 and 22 November fires spread, causing injuries and destroying many people’s belongings, documents and more than 100 shelters.

Migrants at Calais continue to organise and protest. Parts of the camps are being cleared to make way for a new camp which it is promised will have better facilities, but the migrants themselves have no say in this. Others have been bussed away to other parts of France by the authorities, but thousands remain and are facing escalating repression. Calais Migrant Solidarity reports at least 21 deaths since the start of 2015, and ‘an appalling catalogue of injuries by police, lorries, trains, passing cars, razor wire’. Police control the exits from the camps and have repeatedly fired tear gas directly into areas where people are living, even where children are present.

On 8 November the French authorities allowed fascists to hold a public demonstration in the main street of Calais, where a copy of the Qur’an was burned, and in the evening five hooded fascists attacked migrants at the Eurotunnel entrance. People from the camps responded by taking to the highway in large numbers, erecting burning barricades and chanting ‘No Jungle’. On 11 November police launched a massive attack on the camps, using water cannon and rubber bullets and sending in snatch squads to arrest individuals. On 16 November a protest against living conditions in the camps, mainly consisting of women and children, was attacked by police using batons and pepper spray.

These attacks are accompanied by a press campaign, with French Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet alleging that ‘No Borders’ activists from Britain ‘take advantage of the disarray of the migrants and push them into rioting’. Volunteers visiting Calais have also been stopped by police on their way back into Britain and questioned under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000.


In her speech to the Conservative Party conference on 6 October, Home Secretary Theresa May said that while there is a need to help ‘people in desperate need’, in the majority of cases refugees should remain outside Britain. People who travel through a ‘safe country’ on their way to Britain will be offered at most temporary leave to remain and subjected to ‘safe return reviews’, potentially leading to deportation; this suggests an end to the current arrangement whereby an initial leave to remain for five years is usually followed by indefinite leave.

May’s speech also presented a ‘deal’, claiming that ‘the fewer people there are who wrongly claim asylum in Britain the more generous we can be in helping the world’s most vulnerable people in the world’s most dangerous places’. The government has promised to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees over five years, but parliament’s Home Affairs Committee has expressed concern about the lack of preparation in the areas refugees will be housed. When the last Labour government started its asylum dispersal programme in 1999, a lack of preparation left many refugees isolated and vulnerable to racist attack.

May also ranted against international students, EU migrant workers, and migrants from outside the EU, using a host of lies and half-truths, arguing that migrants: force down wages for the low-paid (for which there is no conclusive evidence); increase unemployment (contradicted by the Home Office’s own report last year); put unbearable pressure on public services (a sick joke given the government’s devastating cuts and the reliance of the NHS on migrant labour); come to Britain to claim benefits (contradicted by the disproportionately low take-up amongst migrants); provide no benefit to the economy (contradicted by the Treasury and independent academic studies); and make it impossible to build a ‘cohesive society’ (a fundamentally racist claim). May’s speech reiterated the familiar argument that only skilled workers should be allowed entry with rights: ‘not every person coming to Britain right now is a skilled electrician, engineer or doctor’.

The government’s new Immigration Bill had its second reading in the House of Commons on 13 October. The Bill imposes even more intense surveillance and heavier repression against undocumented migrants, and removes the right to appeal negative asylum decisions from within Britain (see FRFI 248). It also creates a new office of the Director of Labour Market Enforcement – ostensibly aimed at reducing labour exploitation but connected directly to immigration enforcement, suggesting that the primary ‘support’ offered those suffering exploitation will be deportation. During the second reading of the Bill, May boasted of some of the ‘achievements’ of the Immigration Act 2014: 11,000 driving licences revoked on the basis of drivers’ immigration status; 8,000 marriages investigated by the Home Office (out of which, by May’s own admission, 98.5% were found not to be ‘sham’!); and charges for migrants to use NHS services that totalled £100 million.

The Labour Party refuses to oppose the Bill outright. At the second reading Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham expressed support for the idea ‘that there should be firm and fair controls on illegal immigration including new immigration enforcement powers and immigration status checks on current account holders’, and focused his call for amendments on the Bill’s likely ineffectiveness at actually reducing ‘illegal immigration’ and the negative consequences for the children of ‘illegal immigrants’. Burnham also pointed proudly to his own ‘achievements’ as Health Secretary in the last Labour government, when he restricted migrants’ access to the NHS – this is the person Corbyn has put in charge of Labour’s policy on immigration. It was left to Tory MP Richard Fuller to propose an amendment setting a time limit on immigration detention and ending the detention of pregnant women and victims of trafficking, torture or sexual violence – a modest amendment, but one beyond what any Labour MP proposed.


Inside detention, suffering and resistance continue. Recent inquests into deaths in immigration detention include Alois Dvorzac, 84 years old and suffering from heart disease and dementia, who died while shackled to an immigration guard after being held in Harmondsworth detention centre for two weeks. The inquest received a report from the prison ombudsman that concluded his treatment had been on ‘the threshold of inhuman and degrading’, and was a ‘tragic indictment of this system’.

Pinakin Patel died in Yarl’s Wood detention centre on 20 April following a heart attack, having had requests for a doctor ignored for eight days. On the day of his death there were delays sending for paramedics and the ambulance was held up at the gates of the detention centre for ‘six or seven minutes’.

The oppression of migrants and refugees within Europe is enforced by violence and legitimised through racist laws. The British, German and other EU governments are attempting to contain the disastrous consequences of their imperialist system and keep those whose lives it has devastated as far away as possible. It is the workers and oppressed – both those who cross borders and those who don’t – who have the capacity to transform that system.

Close down Yarl’s Wood!

On 7 November 2015, a contingent from London branches of the Revolutionary Communist Group joined the latest in a series of protests outside Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre organised by the Movement for Justice and attended by more than 1,500 protesters from around Britain. We marched behind our banner: ‘Fight Britain’s Racist Immigration Laws – No Deportations!’

Turning a corner to see the detention centre was very emotional. The women and children could be seen protesting from inside – waving banners and their fists, and throwing toilet paper out of the windows. The march was loud and angry in response – chants of ‘SHUT IT DOWN!’ reverberated across the Bedford countryside. We congregated in front of the centre; ladders were lifted high onto the fence and a banner was raised. Drums were beating and many people kicked at the metal divide with their feet. Some of the detainees then called the protest organisers on the phone and their voices were amplified on the loudspeakers so everyone outside could hear what they had to say.

Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) opened on 19 November 2001. It has a capacity for just over 400 people and was the largest immigration detention centre in Europe at the time. Management of Yarl’s Wood was taken over by Serco in 2007. On the website Serco boasts that ‘Yarl’s Wood IRC is a fully contained residential centre housing adult women and adult family groups awaiting immigration clearance’ and that ‘Caring and supporting those held in Detention at Yarl’s Wood is at the forefront of all our policies, procedures and actions.’ However this is far from the truth. On 2 March this year Channel 4 News featured undercover footage shot inside Yarl’s Wood and Harmondsworth IRCs. A Serco manager is shown describing female detainees as ‘animals’ and ‘beasties’ and saying they should be beaten with a stick. Other staff members follow suit, spewing out a torrent of racist and sexist abuse, incitement to violence, disregard for physical and mental health problems, abuse of pregnant women and the elderly, and an attitude to suicide attempts and self-harm ranging from indifference to outright disparagement.

Leaving Yarl’s Wood was difficult – knowing that the detainees faced repercussions for standing up to the system that imprisons them. We salute the Movement for Justice for an excellent event but we must not wait until the next Yarl’s Wood protest to organise against Britain’s racist immigration laws. Get in touch with your local RCG branch and help organise resistance now!!

Suzi Rose

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 248 December 2015/January 2016


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