Issue 187 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
Could you outline the situation facing immigrants and refugees in Britain today?
The first thing to make clear is that immigration and asylum into this country--in terms of volume--are incredibly low. More people are actually leaving the UK in recent specified years than are coming in. So that's the first myth shattered. This government and indeed all governments have perpetuated the myth of an immigration problem. Since 1979 there has been a raft of legislation dealing with what is deemed to be a problem (which it is not)--the issue of immigration numbers.
The most recent example of that was the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act two years ago. The effect has been to try and dry up the numbers of people seeking asylum in this country. It also paved the way for a huge number of asylum seekers and immigrants being detained in detention centres and prisons up and down the country like Campsfield House.
Over 11,000 people are detained under immigration powers every year. At the moment there are around 500 to 700 asylum seekers in UK prisons and detention centres held without trial or conviction. There has been a very brutal and aggressive response to something that is not even a problem in terms of numbers, let alone the well-being of the country.
The Tories have argued that closer integration between European states will lead to a 'flood' of immigrants. How would you respond to that?
Another myth that the government is perpetrating is that the dropping of internal barriers within the European Union would somehow see a 'swamping' of immigrants into Britain. That's wrong for a number of practical reasons. Immigration controls around the external borders of Europe are getting tougher all the time--that's why we call it Fortress Europe. Internal immigration control measures around Europe are getting tougher, like the habitual residence test in Britain or the proposed internal checking of people or ID cards.
External border checks on anyone who is not obviously an EU citizen travelling through Europe--that is black people--will be tougher than ever. In fact, what is going to happen--and the government ought to be telling people this--is that immigration control against black and ethnic minority people is likely to become tougher, not more slack. Free movement within the European Union can in many circumstances make life more difficult for black people. It will not in any way increase the incidence of illegal immigration into this country.
So why do you think the government came up with the Asylum Act and is floating the idea of new legislation?
This government has fought every general election without exception since 1979 with a manifesto which promises tougher immigration and asylum legislation. They did it in 1979 and brought in the 1981 Nationality Act. They did it in 1987 and brought in the 1988 Immigration Act. They did it in 1992 and brought in the 1993 Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act.
They create a problem which doesn't necessarily exist for political reasons before an election and then they have to follow through after the election and they are doing it again. Even right of centre media commentators are saying that any further immigration legislation is completely unnecessary.
One of the arguments put forward by supporters of further immigration controls is that they will reduce racial tension in this country. What would you say to that?
Well, we have dealt with two myths. Let's deal with one of the biggest myths of all--that race relations will somehow be improved by a cutting down of black immigration. Race relations have been declining in recent years, yet black immigration has been falling at the same time. This hardly supports the argument that restricting immigration improves race relations.
It is also deeply insulting to black communities, and that includes recent immigrants, who have contributed an enormous amount to the economy and the social fabric of this country, to suggest that they are such a problem that other black people coming in would make race relations worse. Race relations become worse because of racism and the causes underlying racism. Successive governments have tried to suggest that race relations would improve as a result of restricting immigration. In fact, each new bout of immigration controls has increased racism rather than alleviating it.
I know that the JCWI is involved in campaigning against new attacks on immigrants and also in taking up campaigns around particular individuals and their families. Can you tell us how you see such campaigns developing?
The JCWI is fairly unique in that for 29 years we have been the only national independent organisation working in this field providing legal protection as well as campaigns, which refuses to accept money from any government of whatever complexion. We believe that through campaigning at grassroots level dealing with individual cases of people who come to us we build up a national picture. The national situation is dreadful because, while the numbers of people attempting to come in are very low, the aggression towards those whose immigration status is in any doubt is becoming in some cases too much to bear. The government is now enforcing controls in such a way that the number of deportations and detentions is at a record level. In such a context tragedies can happen as with Joy Gardner. Amnesty International has catalogued a range of cases with people seriously injured or in a couple of cases people ending up dead as a result of enforcement action which is getting increasingly out of control.
Do you think this reflects greater hostility among ordinary people towards immigrants or is the picture more complicated than that?
My understanding is that the British public are singularly uninterested in the tragedies which are caused when families are split up and asylum seekers are sent back. I think that they only respond in general when they become aware of the fact that we are for example deporting former Yugoslavians. They care very little for the situation facing people from Africa and the Indian subcontinent. The government knows that it has fertile territory to exploit anti-immigrant feeling.
Immigration is a key watchword for a racist campaign and governments have either been very defensive about this or have used immigration as an electoral platform. This government has used it mercilessly. They are doing it with increased aggression and an attention to detail which was perhaps not existent in the 1970s.
There have been successful campaigns against deportations. How do you see anti-racists being able to win the argument against immigration controls?
It is critical that the media is used successfully to project what the problems are, to contradict and to attack the suggestions that keep the myth going. That's why JCWI has got an increasing media profile. We also believe that we are emerging from the kind of victim culture into a situation where myself for example, someone whose parents were first generation immigrants from India, I am now second generation. We are a different generation and are less defensive. We are more able to fight these controls on the basis of the black and ethnic minorities who are resident in this country. That's a big change in the fight against racist immigration controls and I want to see more of that happening.
The trade unions in the 1950s and 1960s had a dreadful record on immigration controls. But now the TGWU and Unison are both unions which are overtly involved in campaigns over deportations but also are very clear that immigration is used as a race subject. Bill Morris was involved in the situation around Jamaican visitors to this country being deported a couple of years ago. Unions which traditionally had a bad position or were defensive over this question are coming round. Of course, we need a clear statement from unions across the board. But the situation has vastly improved.
Would you see this as coming from the greater involvement of black people in trade unions and the pressure from anti-racist activists from below?
It is both more black people being involved in the structure of trade unions and the leadership role played by people like Bill Morris. It is important for black people to be in the front line in that way, to articulate our opposition and not simply to have people doing it for us.