Issue 222 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published August/September 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review
Ed Mynott takes a critical look at Labour's racist immigration proposals
'Straw opens door to 30,000 refugees! This was the typical press response to Labour's recent white paper proposals, 'Fairer, Faster and Firmer - A Modern Approach to Immigration and Asylum'. judging by the headlines, you might have thought that Labour had broken decisively with the racism and cruelty which characterised the Tories' approach to immigration.
Ever since the 1960s successive Labour and Tory governments have tightened immigration controls. By the 1990s asylum seekers were under attack. The Tories' 1996 Asylum and Immigration Act encouraged employers to become immigration spies by checking up on workers' status while denying any social security benefits to most asylum seekers. The result was detention and deportation for many and destitution for others.
An enormous backlog of 80,000 asylum applications and appeals has built up. incredibly there are 10,000 people who have waited five years or more for any decision on their asylum claim. These are the lucky ones who will probably be allowed to stay. As for the rest, Labour has rejected any notion of an amnesty.
Instead Labour's plans will make it harder for refugees to travel to Britain and harder to claim asylum if they manage to get here, and they will make it easier to detain and deport those deemed 'bogus'. The Tories' Carriers' Liability Act which fines airlines and others for carrying 'inadequately documented passengers' is to be extended; the number of overseas immigration officers are to be increased and given more power. People whose relatives plan to visit may have to pay a bond as a requirement of entry. Asylum claimants will lose many existing rights of appeal, to be replaced by 'a single right of appeal to those who were lawfully present in the UK at the time of their application'.
Desperate times under Labour
Employers' checks on workers' immigration status are to remain despite the white paper's own admission that 'this can lead to discriminatory recruitment practices which are unlawful under race relations legislation'! Asylum seekers are still to be denied the right to work. All asylum seekers are to be excluded from the social security system. instead the Home office itself will provide support in kind (food parcels and vouchers) rather than cash benefits. Asylum seekers will be dispersed around the country and made just one offer of accommodation. Immigration officers are to get extended powers of arrest and new powers of search, entry and seizure. Asylum seekers deemed to have used 'blatant deceit' will be prosecuted. The number of private detention centres may be increased.
The white paper makes it clear that Labour aim not only to keep all the asylum provisions introduced by previous Tory governments but to extend them. The potential consequences are horrifying.
Commenting on the plans for overseas immigration officers to collaborate with local officials to stop 'inadmissible passengers', Sherman Carroll of the Caring for victims of Torture Medical Foundation asks, 'Are British officials going to finger those attempting to flee human rights abuses for the airport police to intercept them? Will the Home office "engage" ministries of the interior in torture states to alert them to the flight of would-be asylum seekers?' The situation in Britain win be worse too. The Refugee Council fears that Labour's proposals relating to the support of asylum seekers 'will turn the current shambles into something even worse'. Why does jack Straw refuse to reinstate benefits when the white paper admits that-they would be cheaper and easier to administer dim the cumbersome and inappropriate provision of support in kind? Because provision in land 'provides less of a financial inducement for those who would be drawn by a cash scheme'. The white paper cites approvingly the fact that the number of asylum applications fell by 30 percent following the withdrawal of some social security benefits in 1996.'
At their heart, Labour's plans accept the old myth, that immigrants are a drain on economic resources necessitating a growing system of spies, police and prisons to keep them out; and because it is a racist myth, the immigration system targets black people most of all. In the. process asylum seekers are assumed to be economic migrants in disguise, whose reports of persecution must be met with a vigilant suspicion. if this is the shape of Labour's future immigration system, it will be firmer in its cruelty; faster to deliver injustice, but fairer? Not a chance in hell.