Issue 192 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1995 Copyright Socialist Review

Staying power

The Tories are introducing further harsh measures on asylum and immigration. Peter Morgan talks to Lola Onibiyo--whose father has been deported to Nigeria--and goes on to look at the new proposals and the politics behind them
Lola Onibiyo

'In 1964 my father, Abdul Onibiyo, first came to this country and he stayed here for 11 years. He was granted permanent residency status in 1974 which was printed on his passport. He went back to Nigeria in the mid-1970s but unfortunately, although he was given indefinite leave to remain in the UK, he was not aware that as he left the country for more than two years he was to lose his residency. He continued with his National Insurance contributions, his mortgage payments and even his union fees to Unison. But after he came back from Nigeria then all the problems started.

In June 1993 my home was raided under the Metropolitan Police's 'Operation Boxer', and my parents and my younger brother, who was 18 then, were taken in and held for 18 hours. At the time my father was working in local government. He was told he would have to start signing on regularly at the local police station. But on 26 March 1995 my father was arrested and taken to the police station and a flight was booked for him to return to Nigeria on 27 March. He couldn't go because he was so badly beaten up by the police he couldn't travel. Doctors were not allowed to see him for four days, nor was he allowed to see his lawyer. When they found he was fit to move they placed him in Harmondsworth detention centre. Then he was transferred to Campsfield awaiting deportation.

At this time we were trying to enlist the support of people to try and stop my father's deportation. We talked to the press, to our MP. We got a letter from the council to say my father was never under suspicion of fraud. He was accused of signing on with a false ID. The Home Office was not willing to discuss this matter with us.

Then we got a phone call the other day that said my father was to be deported in two days time. We did not believe this was possible as we were still making representations at the time. We tried desperately to stop my father being deported but everyone just turned a blind eye. On the night before he was to be deported there were more guards at Campsfield than for some time because they anticipated a riot. Abdul had eight bodyguards. All eight guards went with him to the airport. We arrived at the airport and the authorities told us that my father was not there. Then we were told we could not see him as he was already on the aircraft. They had given him 5. He has not been to Nigeria for 11 years and they give him 5. His home town is 150 kilometres away from Lagos and no one knew he was coming. He doesn't know anyone there.

Apparently he was handed over to government officials when he landed at Lagos. This was the last we have heard of him. We have heard nothing since. My brother is still in detention in Campsfield.

My father spoke out against the Nigerian government, so the chances are that he is being held. But if so, the chances are that he will 'disappear'. Even when he came to this country he demonstrated against the Nigerian government. The authorities were aware of his political activity, both in this country and in Nigeria. I believe they want to deport my brother as well. The authorities told my mother that my brother would be deported shortly after my father, then my mother and my sisters who are still at school will be forcibly removed as well.

We have received a lot of support for our campaign--it has been overwhelming and I believe that is one of the main reasons why the government has not yet thrown the whole family out.

However, I think this Tory government is a racist government. I am not going to mince my words here--it is a racist government because the Tories turn round and say, 'We value the family'. Yet what they are saying is, yes, we uphold family values, but only for a certain class of people. So we, as a people, do not have the right to an education, to a private life, or a right to a family either--we are treated like dogs. The very least we expect the government to do is to abide by the rules. We are not asking for preferential treatment. We are asking for them to consider our case in the way they would consider anyone else's case, and do it by the book--which they have not done.

They now propose to bring out this horrible Asylum Bill which will split families up and will not give us a chance. They say people are illegal immigrants or 'bogus' refugees--yet they do not care what stories people come with, they do not believe you. There are so many atrocities going on around the world--Bosnia, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Nigeria--but these are the places that are the top of the list as apparently safe. Refugees come here and have the right to benefit removed and their right to legal aid removed. Now the Tories turn round and say: you cannot stay here, you have no right of appeal either. These are people who are being persecuted in their own country. Yet when they come here this government does not want to know.

If this government does not want to treat the symptoms, then it should go to the source and find out what is going on in these countries. Take Nigeria, for example. Shell is there and because of them the local people are being displaced from their land. Shell can get their profits and then the government here locks the doors for those who flee from the repercussions. Also the British government is still dealing in arms to the Nigerian government. And those who are part of the Nigerian regime still come to this country freely. But they stop the poor and the hungry who are fleeing for their life, because the British government says they are lying when they apply for asylum.

'Support for the campaign has been overwhelming'

I think it is a very hypocritical government that is whipping up xenophobia and a racist backlash to try and get people to fight each other. This is the race card that they try and play before every election. Unemployment or lack of benefits they want to blame on immigrants--they want people to turn against them. They want the blacks or the non-British to be blamed for the Tories' problems. I urge people not to let them get away with it this time. It is hypocritical of Michael Portillo or Michael Howard whose own families came to this country. They would not have been allowed to come here today if the current laws existed. How can they now turn around and close the doors on other people?

We have got a lot of support from Labour supporters. I would not say that when it comes into power Labour will fling open the gates and there will be a huge influx in immigration. But what I am saying is that people should be treated by the rules and I believe a Labour government would do that. Not that it would grant everyone the right to stay here but that it would abide by the rules. I do not believe that the Labour government will be as racist as the current one.

But I am not waiting for a Labour government. I am still fighting for my father's release and I am fighting for my brother and my mother and my two sisters at school. They are going to bring my father back. They'd better because every single day of my life I will fight against this evil, racist, hypocritical government.'

For information on the campaign contact the Onibiyo Family Anti-deportation Campaign, c/o Lambeth Unison, 6a Acre Lane, London SW2

Shutting the door on the poor

Welcoming immigrants in the 1950s

There can be few issues which illustrate the nastiness and vindictiveness of the Tory government more than that of immigration. With a general election looming the Tories are playing the race card to try and divert people's attention from the suffering and misery they have caused. Nor is this tactic new--the Tories have fought every election 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 one of the most vicious pieces of legislation, the 1993 Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act. This makes it virtually impossible for all except the most desperate (or indeed the luckiest) to enter this country--those fleeing persecution, imprisonment or possibly death in their 'own' country.

Now Michael Howard is repeating the familiar cry about the dangers of 'bogus' asylum seekers taking advantage of Britain. The Guardian (26 October 1995) reported him as saying:

Kenneth Baker used the same language in 1991. The result in the few years since the 1993 Act has been a further tightening up on immigration and asylum. The new proposals introduced by Howard include forcing employers to check someone's residential status before they are employed. It is estimated that 2 million people a year will have to prove their identities with a passport or birth certificate before they can gain work.

Howard's use of the term 'bogus' is misleading--what may be a legitimate refugee one year becomes a 'bogus' applicant the next, as the law is changed and the screws are tightened--even though the persecution in the applicant's 'own' country may be just as severe The British Refugee Council, in its monthly newsletter Exile (April 1995), puts it like this:

The term also implies that immigrants and refugees are 'a burden on the system' that is already stretched to the limit, unable to cope with the problems of massive 'domestic' unemployment, and the demands on the welfare state. So next January about 40,000 people who have claimed asylum after entering Britain as ordinary visitors, or who have had their claims rejected but are appealing, will have their rights to benefits removed, while home office regulations prevent them working until they have spent six months in Britain. Yet although Howard's new proposals have been heralded as a cost cutting exercise for the government, benefits paid to asylum seekers account for less than a tenth of 1 percent of the total social security budget.

Far from being a drain on resources and welfare, the history of immigration and refugees is that they enrich and improve a country's economy as they contribute more to general taxation and the welfare state than they receive.

Locking the doors on those fleeing persecution, poverty and war

Moreover, domestic sources have added greater numbers to the labour force than immigration ever has. Increases in the number of women available for work between 1960 and 1980 in the US added 8.5 million workers to the labour force, a number well in excess of the number of immigrants over the same period, without women being blamed for unemployment. And the postwar baby boom in the US created 4 million extra workers between 1960 and 1980 which was four times the number of immigrants--yet the baby boomers too are not blamed for unemployment. Rather immigrants are made the subject of resentment for what is in effect the boom-bust cycle of the capitalist system.

Nor is it the case that immigrants draw disproportionately from the welfare state. Studies have shown that in the case of Caribbean migration to Britain in the 1960s few of the immigrants drew retirement pensions--one of the largest items in the benefits system. Also their use of other provisions was less than those people born in Britain. Yet over the years, the government has gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent immigrants and asylum seekers claiming benefits.

One of the most powerful images that the Tories conjure up is the idea that there are literally millions of people waiting to 'invade' this country if they were to relax the immigration laws. Part of this argument is shown to be ridiculous by the simple fact that the entire population of the EC is entitled to come to Britain yet they hardly feel the urge to pack their bags and flee here. The governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, let the cat out the bag recently, when arguing for the right of all Hong Kong citizens to have the right of abode in Britain, by giving figures which show that the vast majority of Hong Kong citizens don't choose to come to Britain but prefer the US, Canada and Australia, instead as a final destination.

But behind the hysteria it is worth reminding ourselves that Europe and the US still take only a very small percentage of the world's refugees--the vast majority of whom are forced to move because of war, poverty or persecution for which the Western powers are largely to blame. In the late 1980s there was a rapid increase in the number of people seeking asylum both from the world's trouble spots (such as Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan or Sri Lanka) and also because of displacement within Europe (due largely to the East European revolutions and the removal of the Berlin Wall). As Nigel Harris states in his book The New Untouchables:

In Britain the stated intention of the 1993 Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act was to reduce the number of asylum seekers granted 'Exceptional Leave to Remain'--temporary permission to stay--which had been the surest method of getting the legal right to asylum in the 1980s. The result has been dramatic. In 1990 a full 83 percent of asylum seekers obtained permission to live in Britain either as refugees or on Exceptional Leave to Remain. Last year only 21 percent were allowed to stay. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of people applying for asylum--in 1993 there were 24,604 applicants, in 1994 there were 32,830 and this year it is expected to be about 40,000. One of the main reasons for this is the increase in the number of places from which people are trying to flee--the war in Bosnia or instability in Africa for example. As the British Refugee Council confirms (Exile, April 1995), 'The increase in claims over the last year coincides with a marked increase in instability around the world and large increases in refugees and displaced people.'

But even then the government tries to stop the flow. In 1992, as the number of asylum seekers from former Yugoslavia rose sharply to over 5,000 a year, the government announced that no Bosnian could travel to Britain without a visa. This was 'catch 22'. There was and is no British embassy in Bosnia where Muslims could get a visa. If they left to get one in a neighbouring country, in Austria for example, they would be denied the ability to claim asylum in Britain. This is because the 'third country rule' requires refugees to claim asylum in the first safe country they reach. So the number of refugees from the former Yugoslavia collapsed.

Britain receives a lot fewer applications from asylum seekers than other European countries. Between 1992 and 1994 there were 887,000 applicants for asylum in Germany compared to 102,000 in Britain. A further result of the 1993 Act has been a dramatic increase in the number of asylum seekers and immigrants being detained in detention centres like Campsfield House and prisons. Asylum seekers are never told the reasons for their detention or given any opportunity to defend themselves. In a 1994 study, Amnesty International found that their detention was arbitrary, in that those detained were as likely to be granted asylum finally as those not detained. Over 11,000 people are detained under immigration powers every year, with deportation rates running at around 4,000 to 6,000 a year. These are often done in a most brutal way, as the murder of Joy Gardner by police and immigration officials graphically showed.

The Institute of Race Relations in its report Europe on Trial tells of a Somali refugee who, in April 1993, flew to Britain via Rome, collapsed on arrival and was found to have shrapnel lodged in his head and neck. The authorities gave him painkillers and sent him back to Rome the following day. It also tells of a Pakistani man the authorities wanted to deport in October 1994, who was so desperate not to go back he slashed himself in his stomach, wrists and legs, and needed 59 stitches. The airline captain refused to take him and he was taken to prison, where the prison officers refused to detain him and sent him to hospital. He was deported the following day and a prison officer commented that the man's treatment was 'worse than inhuman'.

Yet even those refugees lucky enough not to be held in detention centres are subject to racism. For example, North Middlesex Hospital was recently reported to the Racial Equality Commission for not treating Kurds. Although entitled to treatment the refugees were refused appointments because of their need for interpreters.

Refugees are not criminals

But one of the most pernicious aspects of the proposed law is the claim by Amnesty International that the government intends to implement a 'white list' of countries (which are deemed safe and from which all applicants for asylum are refused). It is nothing new for the government to change its policies on other countries (and 'their' refugees) depending on its foreign policy needs--or rather the needs of British capitalism overseas. A good example of this was the case of the Tamil refugees. From 1983 a growing number of Tamils came to this country to escape communal violence. However, by 1985 the home office adopted a new policy which meant that those who had already been admitted were given 'Exceptional Leave to Remain', but those seeking asylum thereafter were to be treated on a case by case basis. In the late 1980s, when the Jaffna peninsula was being bombarded by shelling, Britain returned Tamil asylum seekers on the ground that the shelling was indiscriminate and did not therefore constitute persecution. As the Centre for Research and Ethnic Relations says:

One of the more brutal regimes to which people are deported is Nigeria. In the first three months of 1995 over 1,700 new asylum seekers arrived in Britain from Nigeria fleeing from a regime which according to the US government Department of State, has 'committed numerous, repeated human rights abuses in its efforts to prevent citizens opposing it by peaceful means'.

Nigerians are now the largest group of asylum seekers arriving in Britain--in 1989 there were just 20 claims; in 1994 over 4,000. Yet since 1985 only three Nigerians have been awarded refugee status, and in the first three months of 1995 all decisions made on Nigerian applications were to refuse the right to asylum.

Sierra Leone is a country suggested for the white list. Its residents have been subjected to a brutal civil war and military regime, and over 1 million (out of a total population of 4 million) have been displaced, with over a quarter of a million fleeing to Guinea and over 120,000 to Liberia. In 1994 only 1,810 Sierra Leoneans applied for asylum in Britain. Of the 565 decisions, five were granted refugee status, ten were allowed ELR and 540 were refused. Many more still await a judgement. This is hardly surprising as there are still nearly 57,000 applications outstanding from all asylum seekers.

But despite all this the Tories' attempt to whip up racism has been met with enormous resistance. This has been seen in the numerous anti-deportation and anti-racist campaigns that have taken place over the last few years, which have involved thousands of working class people, both black and. white. The murder of Joy Gardner was greeted with anger and outrage on the streets of London. And the recent TUC anti-racist demonstration saw numerous banners from various anti-deportation campaigns. Largely this is because in an integrated society--where black and white live, work and struggle together--the Tories' attempt to scapegoat black people or refugees for the appalling state of the economy just does not fit the reality of people's everyday lives.

The response of socialists to this is to recognise that all immigration controls are inherently racist. Capital is allowed to move unrestricted around the world in search of resources, markets and profits. Therefore we support those who are forced to follow this investment to improve their standard of living. Indeed this has been a feature of capitalism since its birth, which the ruling class recognises.

In times of boom they are intent on recruiting immigrant labour, as they were in Britain during the 1950s and 1960s with the recruitment of West Indians, or in the last century with the mass immigration of Irish workers. The US has been built on immigrant labour and today is still dependent on immigrants. Indeed in the early 1980s, when the Reagan administration arrested 6,000 illegal immigrants in nine cities, during a clampdown on immigration to 'free' jobs for unemployed American citizens, they found that so few Americans applied for the work because of the appalling wages and conditions that the 'illegals' returned to take the jobs. Whole economies today are dependent on immigrant labour--the Middle East is one of the largest importers of labour from South East Asia.

But as the economy moves into recession so the ruling class, which in the past welcomed the movement of labour, turns round and imposes restrictions to try and impose the burden of crisis onto 'foreign' workers--either by cracking down on their wages and benefits, or by imposing stringent and draconian controls on their movement. This is largely an attempt to divide worker against worker and deflect the blame for economic crises away from the ruling class.

As the Tories try to play the race card once again, they should be resisted every inch of the way. Those who have suffered most under their rule have a common cause with those who, in the most desperate of circumstances, go to extraordinary lengths to gain entry to this country. It is in the interests of all workers to welcome every immigrant and refugee, whatever their reasons, whatever their nationality.

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