Issue 242 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
Claude* is a biochemist who has done pioneering work in isolating the components of the sophisticated modern drugs used to treat cancer and Aids from natural flora. He is currently carrying out post-doctoral research at one of Britain's leading universities. Sonya undertook her doctoral research at Chernobyl, investigating the use of high doses of vitamins in the treatment of children affected by radioactive fallout. Neither of these people are British citizens, nor have they been headhunted by international recruitment consultants. Rather, Claude and Sonya arrived in the UK via refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Originally refugees from the Rwandan genocide, they fled again from Congo to the UK only when the Congolese civil war threatened their lives for a second time. Claude and Sonya are asylum seekers.
Moreover, their case is not unique. They are two former students on an innovative course on which I teach at a London university. This course aims to provide asylum seekers and refugees with a 'fast track', not to deportation, but to higher education or professional employment. Scanning the class list of a recent course provides an interesting insight into the background of many asylum seekers: an engineer and a human rights activist who fled the fundamentalist Taliban regime in Afghanistan; an MBA who fell foul of the Russian mafia; a Latvian computer programmer; two engineers, a doctor and a teacher from Iraq; a consultant psychiatrist and two dissident intellectuals from Iran; an Albanian physicist and a Kosovan musician; a businesswoman and a teacher of children with special needs from Colombia; an Algerian journalist; Kurdish biochemists, engineers, doctors and nurses; and several secretaries, administrators and students from various of the world's troublespots.
This profile shows the predominant media image of asylum seekers as scroungers, squeegee merchants, beggars, rapists and terrorists to be a callow lie. Yet such stereotypes, vigorously promoted by the right wing tabloids, mould public and political opinion about asylum seekers, and underpin repressive government legislation which aims to restrict the right to asylum, and make life for asylum seekers in Britain as impoverished, unpleasant, undignified and humiliating as is possible under international law. It could be objected that Claude and Sonya are not typical asylum seekers. However, this is not true. Although the yellow press and the New Labour government alike pretend otherwise, the large majority of asylum seekers bring with them useful skills and know-how from which the British economy and British society will benefit. Generally it is only those refugees who have access to professional networks, who have reasonable English language skills, a little hard currency, and a lot of self confidence and determination who make it to the UK.
The bulk of refugees seek refuge in neighbouring countries which are themselves unstable or human rights abusers. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates the world total of refugees at over 22 million. The majority of these refugees flee to neighbouring countries: Iran, Pakistan and India are host to 3 million Afghan refugees; Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia host 600,000 Iraqi refugees; and half a million Sierra Leonian refugees are currently in Guinea, Senegal and Gambia. Even in the case of the former Yugoslavia, most refugees end up in other former Yugoslav republics, Germany, Scandinavia or Switzerland. Britain is host to none of the world's major refugee populations, yet the asylum seekers that it does receive come in the main from their countries' intelligentsia and professional elite. Many of these have been involved in political opposition movements to the dominant regimes in their countries, or have been involved in promoting human rights and have only sought refuge in Britain at the last possible moment, when their lives and those of their families are in clear and present danger.
Informed establishment opinion is quite aware of this. An Economist journalist wrote recently, 'Many people would agree that unrestricted immigration carries large social costs of assimilating people who are culturally and linguistically different, but against this must be set the array of economic benefits that migrants can bring... British policy towards asylum seekers must be changed.' Of course, it would be wrong to argue that only professionally qualified refugees who could bring obvious 'economic benefits' should be let into the UK and others excluded. The 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees states that 'a "refugee" is a person who is outside of his or her country and cannot return because of a well-founded fear of persecution, or who has fled because of war or civil conflict'--nothing here about 'economic benefits'. Nevertheless, the spectacle of the Economist criticising a Labour government on its reactionary and right wing stance on asylum seekers is indicative of a deep malaise in British politics. We live in worrying times.
The government has cause to be grateful to the Tories. The extremity of Hague and Widdecombe's rants about locking up all asylum seekers makes New Labour's own repressive measures appear reasonable to a casual observer who has had no direct contact with actual asylum seekers. Marxists should remember that ideas develop out of practice, not the other way round. Thus sticks and stones break bones but words in themselves seldom do real harm. New Labour is now in power and is likely to be so after the next general election. It is the sticks and stones of its actions which are causing asylum seekers real suffering in Britain today. The Tories' despicable words about 'reception centres' and a repatriations agency hurt only in so far as they encourage and justify further government repression, and supply Jack Straw with a constant stream of ideas for new measures. We have been here before. In the late 1970s and early 1980s National Front propaganda advocating the forced repatriation of black and Asian Britons to their supposed countries of origin had the effect of legitimising as 'reasonable' the Thatcher government's racist views on immigration. The result of this was the draconian 1981 Immigration Act.
The 1951 Geneva Convention states that 'a refugee has the right to safe asylum. However, international protection comprises more than physical safety. Refugees should receive at least the same rights and basic help as any other foreigner who is a legal resident.' Furthermore, the convention asserts that 'economic and social rights should apply to refugees as they do to other individuals. Every refugee should have access to medical care. Every adult refugee should have the right to work. No refugee child should be deprived of schooling.' In forcing asylum seekers to live on the princely sum of £35.25 per week mainly in vouchers (sorry, no change given) the government is clearly breaking the spirit of the convention, even as it (just about) conforms to the convention's letter. Small surprise, then, that the government is lobbying for the 1951 convention, which so far has formed the cornerstone of British policy on asylum, to be replaced in response to 'the influx of economic migrants'. Rushing in where Michael Howard feared to tread, Straw is asking the European Union to advocate the redrafting of the convention 'to reflect modern times', thereby endangering what has hitherto been regarded as an almost sacred text in international law. This should be one 'modernisation' too far for a civilised society to tolerate.
As the Tories talk about 'reception centres', the government is building 'detention centres'. Dispersal ensures that asylum seekers are removed from the community and support networks that exist in London. Instead, asylum seekers will be dumped onto the outskirts of provincial towns where racist and fascist groups such as the BNP will exploit the asylum issue. Take one sample week in February: the Bolton Evening News reported 'a racially motivated and horrific attack' in which Kosovan refugees were assaulted by thugs using broken bottles and bricks, while the Manchester Evening News reported that three young Kurdish asylum seekers were beaten up and robbed by a gang of 20 thugs. Meanwhile, as well as ensuring that asylum seekers live in abject poverty, vouchers function as a social signifier of unwanted 'otherness' chillingly like Nazi Germany's pink triangles and yellow Stars of David. Already several of my students have complained of harassment in shops when their vouchers have been produced in payment.
New Labour's response early in its term of office to the murder of Stephen Lawrence was well-intentioned and should be applauded. However, as Imran Khan, the Lawrences' lawyer commented recently, there is 'clear evidence' that government policy on asylum has led to a significant increase in the kind of racist attacks which brought about the death of Stephen Lawrence. For, as Bill Morris, the leader of the TGWU pointed out this April, the 'mood music' created by the vilification of asylum seekers by the government and much of the media gives succour to racists and fascists to the detriment of both asylum seekers, and black and Asian Britons. Indeed, 'asylum' has effectively become a media codeword for 'race' which allows racists to use the asylum issue as a 'respectable' vehicle for the expression of otherwise socially and politically unacceptable racist sentiments.
New Labour no doubt set out to make 'old fashioned' racism against blacks, Asians and others a thing of the past--henceforth, black and Asian Britons were to be 'us' rather then 'them'. Unfortunately, having effectively abandoned even a token commitment to socialism as a defining creed, New Labour began its flirtation with organic, corporatist nationalism. Thus 'New Britain' with its 'strong community' was fulfilling a 'moral purpose' to 'renew British strength', with New Labour as 'the nation's only hope for salvation', and 'nation and party at last united'. To play with revivalist nationalism is to play with political fire. Although New Labour originally was at pains to create a redefined politically correct nationalism, a nationalist agenda inevitably requires a 'them', a demonised 'other' against whom 'us', however that 'us' is defined, can find identity. Asylum seekers fitted this bill perfectly, hence New Labour's willingness to milk anti-asylum for all it is worth.
In March this year Blair was referring to 'bogus and non-bogus asylum seekers'--no mention of the word 'genuine'. In a similar vein, Jack Straw offended the Roma, the extermination of whom the Nazis prioritised above the extermination of the Jews, by stating that society has been 'too tolerant' of 'travellers', and he has recently shared a platform with Charles Murray, an academic white supremacist from the US who believes that white people are genetically superior to black people, and the rich enjoy a similar advantage over the poor. Regrettably, in letting the racist genie out of the bottle, the Labour government has initiated a sequence of events that it can no longer control, and the long term consequences of which are unpredictable. Certainly a racist agenda will dominate British politics until after the next general election at least. Thus the government intends to open army camps as detention centres to hold an expected 'surge' of refugees this summer.
The scapegoating of asylum seekers is rooted in populist politics and the exploitation of nationalism for short term political ends. Away from the Daily Mail and the Sun, the bosses' newspaper the Financial Times recently reported that even as the government is building internment camps to accommodate a 'flood' of asylum seekers, it is planning 'a fast-track work permit system to speed up the recruitment of foreign workers' because of 'severe skills shortages' in areas such as information technology, engineering and medicine. Why go to such lengths to recruit from eastern Europe and Australasia when people such as Claude and Sonya are already living here and need only attend a short 'fast track' course such as the one I teach on to enter the labour market? Could it be the colour of their skin?
*The names have been changed for reasons of confidentiality