Issue 231 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1999 Copyright Socialist Review

Asylum seekers

Means test and misery

Blair poses with refugees

One result of the current war in the Balkans has been to highlight a glaring contradiction. While Labour postures as the refugees' friend, it is ramming its despicable Asylum Bill through parliament. In order to bolster the humanitarian credentials of Nato's war in the Balkans, the government and the press have suddenly reinvented themselves as the champions of the Kosovan refugees. Yet it was only last November that Jack Straw refused entry visas for 91 injured Kosovan Albanians because they could not pay for their medical treatment or guarantee that they would return to Kosovo. Now Labour boasts of the high rate at which Kosovan refugees are granted refugee status. It does not mention that only a third of the 10,000 who fled in the years before the bombing have had their cases dealt with.

Even once the war had started Labour's first response was to insist that refugees had to stay in surrounding countries. Only when the sheer scale of the refugee crisis threatened to destabilise Macedonia and Albania did Labour make a U-turn. It was pushed by a furious German government which demanded that Britain took a greater share of refugees. At the end of April Germany had received nearly 10,000 refugees, whereas Britain had received just 330.

Now that the airlifts have begun, refugees are being put up in reception centres across the country, though not in London. These centres range from tower blocks to disused old people's homes, and there has been some wrangling between local councils and the government over who is going to pay. Some features of these emergency evacuations resemble what the government plans for all asylum seekers in the future--the fact that they will be dispersed outside London and 'clustered' together. The crucial difference, however, is that the current crop of evacuees, despite their temporary status, do have the right to work, claim benefits, and get access to public services. There is at least the possibility that they can change accommodation or move cities. Even such meagre freedoms will be denied to asylum seekers in the future under Labour's Asylum Bill.

The bill is breathtaking in the scope of its attacks. There will be more detention, more deportation, existing rights to appeal at immigration decisions will be reduced or abolished, and immigration officers will get new powers of search and arrest. Immigration Service managers are already debating the use of batons, CS spray and body armour stab vests.

But it is the removal of welfare benefits from all asylum seekers which has dominated the debate. Under the new system the responsibility for supporting asylum seekers is to be taken over by a national agency run by the Home Office. This will contract with a consortia of local councils, private companies and charities to provide accommodation and subsistence to destitute asylum seekers. They will be dispersed around the country with no choice over where they are sent or whether they live in a house or a hostel. Support will be 'in kind', with the provision of food vouchers worth only 70 percent of income support and a tiny cash allowance. Even this can be denied to asylum seekers if they have failed to look to 'their community' for support. Asylum seekers will be forced to sell any personal valuables (such as jewellery) before they will be entitled even to food vouchers or accommodation. Most sinister, perhaps, are the plans indicated by internal Home office documents to link this new asylum support process with the carrying out of deportations. One policy objective is that 'the process helps enforcement action to be taken'. This statement alone should start ringing alarm bells among unions organising council and health workers, who are due to be dragged into cooperation with the Home Office.

The Asylum Bill has been met with shock and anger by organisations which deal with immigrants and refugees. According to Nick Hardwick of the Refugee Council, 'Every refugee and children's organisation has condemned the fate [planned] for asylum seekers as unbearable.' Yet at the bill's second reading in February, not one Labour MP voted against it.

The war changed this as the pro-refugee rhetoric used to justify Nato's actions clashed with the reality of the bill. A degree of opposition has now broken out. This opposition, epitomised by Labour backbenchers like Oona King and Neil Gerrard, who sit on the special committee scrutinising the bill, has focused on the voucher system and the fact that asylum seekers could be stuck in the support system for years. This is looking more likely as the number of people waiting for a decision on their asylum case has risen from 51,950 in March 1998 to 74,405 in March 1999.

But the approach of the MPs opposed to the bill is to use backroom pressure to get concessions. There is little public campaigning over specific concerns, let alone for the scrapping of the bill. In return, Jack Straw is making noises about possible minor concessions at the bill's final reading at the end of May. But he is very unlikely to abandon the principle of cashless support and dispersal or any other fundamental aspect of the bill.

We face the development of a parallel and inferior social security system for asylum seekers, and the legal exclusion of everyone 'subject to immigration control' from a range of welfare services. The only justification put forward for this is the paranoid racist fantasy that social security benefits are a magnet for bogus asylum seekers. The truth is that immigration has never been a drain on resources. Without the labour and the cultural richness of generations of immigrants, Britain would be a poorer place. It would be simple enough for Labour to make this point as well as providing a proper welcome to those fleeing persecution and war.

Labour has been forced to highlight the suffering of the Kosovan refugees in order to bolster its war effort. Yet with the Asylum Bill it is legitimating every racist prejudice and creating the conditions for an already marginalised and poverty stricken group to be herded together in visible and squalid accommodation. One Refugee Council spokesman remarked that you might as well give asylum seekers a Star of David to wear. By stigmatising asylum seekers as scrounging fraudsters, most of whom will be removed as quickly as possible, Labour will increase the chances that those who have fled from horror and persecution become legitimate targets for every racist thug.

One of the few heartening aspects of the current refugee crisis is the way that many working class people have spontaneously welcomed the Kosovan refugees arriving in their areas. The racist response that 'they' are using 'our' scarce resources has so far been reduced to background mutterings. In some areas local socialists have already been trying to build on that response, to make sure the racists remain marginalised, by passing union motions and by issuing open letters to the press welcoming the refugees.

The deep anger and distrust felt by many people against Labour means that a campaign in support of refugees can get a wide level of support and force Jack Straw to think again.
Ed Mynott


Meet the new boss?

Mega rally in Jakarta

Indonesia's first 'free' elections since 1955 are due to take place on 7 June. The overthrow of the 32 year long Suharto dictatorship last year has paved the way for the vote, but much of the old Suharto state remains intact. The armed forces (ABRI), backbone of the Suharto state, will still automatically be appointed 38 seats in the new parliament. This is the force which shot 18 dead during last November's mass demonstrations against President BJ Habibie, Suharto's deputy and then successor. The army is also continuing to foment ethnic conflicts in various parts of Indonesia. These include East Timor, where the Habibie government's long delayed promise of a referendum on independence is being contested by pro-integrationist militias covertly supported by the army.

But if parts of the army and the political establishment resent some of the Habibie government's reforms, the mainstream of the ruling class are desperately hoping that the electoral process will see the end of the mass movement led by students which overthrew Suharto. In this they have the backing of the major powers, especially the US and Australia, which are encouraging the reform agenda. The one great advantage which these forces have is that the student movement and the left have found it difficult to come to terms with these new developments.

Last November's demonstrations were the largest and most militant of the whole revolution so far. They aimed to get rid of the Habibie government, which they saw as Suhartoism without Suharto, in the same way that they had won the previous May--by virtue of the simple pressure of numbers on the streets. Habibie's response was an attempt at a Tiananmen Square style crackdown. This failed as army units began to waver. But the students did not unseat Habibie and the government pushed ahead with the electoral timetable.

Disconcerted, the student movement subsided, in part because it called no demonstrations during the Ramadan period in the first weeks of 1999. But it did not revive, because the electoral process met with a divided response from students. Some who had at first thought Habibie no different from Suharto were determined to make use of the democratic opening by becoming electoral monitors and trying to ensure that the elections were 'free and fair'. Others, still distrustful of Habibie, continued to fight on under the old slogans of 'Down with Habibie' and ABRI out of politics'. They are now arguing for a boycott of the electoral process.

The left wing People's Democratic Party (PRD) is suffering a similar schizophrenia. It has been legalised by Habibie, although some of its leaders are still in jail. The PRD is standing in the elections because it rightly argues that the masses are looking to the electoral process and so it cannot abstain under such circumstances. But it does not want to lose touch with the most radical sections of the mass movement, and so is still calling for a boycott of the elections in certain areas.

Much of this confusion stems from the PRD's stages theory of revolution--first it is necessary to achieve the democratic stage and only then the socialist stage. This is particularly disabling because it prevents the PRD from standing on a socialist platform and denouncing the whole parliamentary democratic alternative as an inadequate solution to the needs of the mass of Indonesians still caught in a catastrophic capitalist crisis. But even with this weakness in the mass movement, there is no guarantee that the electoral process can stabilise the situation for the ruling class.

The intractable difficulties of the economic crisis remain. Indonesian companies lack the capital and positive bank balances to start a new wave of investment. Foreign companies are unwilling to do so in a climate of continuing political instability. The shrinking economic cake, combined with the failure of Habibie's government to dismantle the Suharto clan's massive business empire, has led to increasing competition for resources between Jakarta and the localities in the thousands of scattered islands that comprise Indonesia. This, combined with the activities of ABRI, is the dynamic behind the internecine war between rival ethnic and religious groups painted by foreign journalists. However, the pattern that emerges is not one of Christians killing Muslims and vice versa in random mob violence, but rather a carefully orchestrated campaign of army and police violence in order to maintain their political and economic power. Nowhere is this clearer than in the slightly different case of East Timor.

A less well known example occurred recently in Aceh, where there is a growing separatist movement. Some 24 school students demanding separation from Jakarta had been detained by police in local jails, bringing out 10,000 fellow pupils in solidarity demanding their release. The result was two teenagers shot dead by the police in 'interethnic violence'. This centrifugal violence--some of which is separatist, some of which is religious and some of which is ethnic--has only taken centre stage in the absence of a coherent alternative being posed by the student movement and the left.

But other difficulties await the ruling class, even on the electoral plane itself. The major contenders are Megawati, daughter of former nationalist leader Sukarno, in coalition with the two main popular Islamic parties--Abdurrahman Wahid's CKB and Amien Rais's PAN. Megawati--or 'Mega'--is the popular choice of millions of urban poor. Nevertheless, she attempts to be all things to all people, supporting the devastating terms of the IMF loans and apparently encouraging ABRI commander General Wiranto to become vice-presidential candidate, thus ensuring army support for the new regime. She even refuses to recognise the legitimacy of the forthcoming plebiscite on independence in East Timor.

The opposition coalition is faced by the ruling Golkar party of Suharto, Habibie and General Wiranto. Its massive political machine may mean that it does better than many, expect, although the opposition, especially now it has united, is still favourite to win. The danger for the ruling class is that the new boss is so quickly coming to resemble the old boss. Thus it may be that both the electoral process as a whole and the various parties will fall into disrepute, even if the electoral process doesn't descend into violence.

But solutions to the day to day problems of millions will clearly have to be found in a different strategy if the forces of the Indonesian revolution are to gain from the electoral developments. Some 3,000 students demonstrated last month on the anniversary of the Trisakti University massacre, which marked the start of the revolution. It was the biggest protest since the demonstrations of hundreds of thousands last November. If the movement is to grow further it must confront the electoral process with a force which involves workers as well as students. And to do that it will have to talk the language of socialism, not simply the language of democracy; of anti-capitalism as well as anti-authoritarianism.
Alexis Wearmouth


No justice, no peace

The election of Ehud Barak, the head of the 'One Israel' coalition, has been hailed as a breakthrough for peace in the Middle East. The Labour Party leader scored a resounding victory over the right wing incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu, who pledged when elected in 1996 to fundamentally change the Oslo peace treaty with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu's government went on to systematically ignore every deadline and obligation made at Oslo, and encouraged the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. By freezing the peace process, Netanyahu shattered the economic optimism that had swept the country after the Oslo accords. One of Barak's most telling slogans of the election campaign was, 'If 100,000 Israelis have lost their jobs, why should Netanyahu keep his?'

Economic stagnation combined with corruption and nepotism as Netanyahu tried to keep his 'coalition of minorities' government on the rails. A month before the election one of Netanyahu's key allies, Aryeh Deri, the leader of the ultraorthodox Shas Party, was sentenced to four years in prison for accepting bribes. During the election campaign it emerged that the police were also recommending the indictment of Ariel Sharon, the foreign minister and the man who led the Israeli army into Lebanon in 1982, for corruption. No wonder that Zev Chafets, a columnist on the Jerusalem Report, could write on the eve of the ballot, 'Netanyahu looks less like a candidate for prime minister than don of a particularly squalid Mafia family.'

Barak promises to change all that, but will he? Barak now has to build a coalition, and immediately after the election his aides were sounding out the prospects of Shas, shorn of its indicted leader, and Likud, with Netanyahu no longer at the helm, joining the One Israel government.

Unlike his predecessor, the new prime minister promises to get peace talks with the Palestinians back on track, and to improve relations with Israel's Arab neighbours, but his potential coalition partners are likely to find a change of style rather than substance.

Barak has already made it plain that Israel will negotiate 'from a position of strength'. He is not a dove. He is Israel's most decorated soldier, and is notorious among Palestinians as a war criminal who led a commando raid on Beirut to assassinate three top PLO commanders. Barak holds out the hope of a return to the Oslo accords, yet as a minister he conspicuously abstained when called on to ratify those accords. Above all he has already laid down preconditions that the PLO will find impossible to accept. Before the elections he told the Jerusalem Post newspaper:

Barak repeated the same points in his victory speech, prompting Abu Middayn, the justice minister in the Palestinian government, to say, 'No Palestinian could ever come to terms with conditions which are a carbon copy of Netanyahu's.' Barak is offering the Palestinians less than half the total area of the Israeli occupied West Bank, with Palestinian territory divided into four physically separate cantons.

The new Israeli prime minister says he cannot stop Yasser Arafat declaring a Palestinian state, but would prefer a Palestinian confederation with Jordan. However, Barak understands that symbols are less important than facts on the ground. 'I am not interested in their [the Palestinians'] stamps, or their passports, or what they call themselves', he said before the election. 'I am interested in our security.' That means ensuring that whatever form of Palestinian self government develops remains isolated and weak.

Even Barak's dealings with his Arab neighbours are aimed at undermining the Palestinians. The Israeli prime minister has pledged to make peace with Syria and extract Israeli troops from Lebanon within a year, although this would mean a return of the Golan Heights and is conditional on a referendum. He intends to use any deal to give Syria the area which controls water supplies to the West Bank, which is claimed by the Palestinians.

Barak's vision, like that of his mentor, the assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, is to see Israel supplement its military domination of the Middle East with an economic hegemony, offering western business a gateway to huge supplies of cheap labour and underdeveloped markets. However, an economically and militarily dominant Israel striking deals with the corrupt rulers of its Arab neighbours is not a recipe for long term peace.

There can be no peace without justice--for both the Palestinians and the Arab masses. That means an end to the occupation of Arab land, and the end of Jewish settlements on Arab land and the destruction of Arab homes that goes with it. It means giving the right of return to all those Palestinians driven from their lands in 1948 and allowing the Arab masses the opportunity to benefit from the region's fabulous oil wealth.

Israel's new government is opposed to all of that, which means the future still looks bleak in the Middle East.
Mike Simons

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