Issue 243 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
It's the argument that's bogus
Mike Diboll's article on refugees and racism (June SR) points out that New Labour is attempting to redraft the 1951 Geneva Convention--the 'cornerstone' of British asylum policy. Jack Straw wants a new international agreement on refugees which will distinguish them formally from 'economic migrants', whom Straw will declare 'bogus' and ineligible for asylum rights.
In fact, the distinction between 'genuine' refugees and most other contemporary migrants is meaningless. The exercise serves only those, like Straw, who wish to exclude certain sorts of people--those who are poor and vulnerable.
World capitalism is making more and more forced migrants. A 'globalised' world was supposed to bring prosperity worldwide; instead it has made inequality and poverty more general. In the crisis zones of the Third World local economic and political systems are increasingly vulnerable. Financial collapse, political conflict, war and environmental disaster force vast numbers of people to flee as a means of survival. It is impossible to distinguish between those who fall within the provisions of the 1951 Convention and others who are compelled to flee.
In the early 1990s even the US government admitted that 'increasingly, both pure refugees and purely economic migrants are ideal constructs rarely found in real life; many among those who routinely meet the refugee definition are clearly fleeing both political oppression and economic dislocation'.
The 1951 Convention was a product of the Cold War. It was devised by Western politicians who hoped to gain in their ideological battles with the Eastern bloc by accepting refugees from Stalinist repression. Thus the convention defined a specific sort of refugee--the individual who could demonstrate fear of certain types of persecution, which were carefully and narrowly defined. One writer recently described these 'official' refugees as 'ambassadors of the Cold War--living witnesses of corrupt, evil governments and to the heraldry of the [Western] host state'.
Capitalism has always produced a different sort of refugee--groups of people fleeing all manner of crises. Since the 1970s their numbers have increased enormously. Despite the fact that a mere fraction (less than 5 percent of the global total) attempt to enter European states, according to New Labour they cannot be granted asylum because they cannot demonstrate individual persecution. They are therefore 'economic migrants': cynical, self serving opportunists whose aim is to milk the welfare state.
Those who seek to separate 'genuine' from 'bogus' asylum seekers are those who wish to exclude the victims of a system in which crisis and conflict are endemic. They will always find sanctuary for migrants with wealth and influence: impoverished and desperate people are another matter. The argument that 'refugees are welcome here' is therefore a crucial statement of solidarity and one which recognises the cynical, self serving activities of those who deny the reality of a world in crisis.
I did this with some apprehension as the meeting is not primarily a political forum. But the response was terrific. There was unequivocal acceptance to support the statement and to donate £100 towards the cost of an advertisement. The meeting also decided that all residents should be mailed with a flyer and details of both a local meeting in defence of asylum seekers and the demonstration on 24 June.
It was argued that directly contacting all residents over this issue would allow those who might oppose such a move to come out in the open and be challenged. But the main reason would be to let the majority who would support the statement know that we are prepared to stand up to the lies and the racism of the press, the government, and the Tories.
Arguments can be won, and large numbers of people can be united and are willing to take a position against the likes of William Hague and Jack Straw once again playing the race card for political gain.
We welcome letters and contributions on all issues raised in Socialist Review. Please keep your contributions as short as possible, typed, double spaced if you can, and on one side of paper only.
I agree with the article (June SR) that the attacks on asylum seekers have little to do with their economic liability and more to do with racist scapegoating.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the BBC. In July last year, whilst the Asylum and Immigration Bill was going through parliament, the Home Office decided that it would limit work permits given to those journalists who were recruited from abroad to work for the World Service to a maximum of three years, thus denying them the ability to stay in the country for the four years required to gain permanent residency.
Many World Service journalists come from countries which are governed by totalitarian regimes and are in the midst of civil war. Furthermore, many are journalists who have been specifically targeted by their government, the most recent example being that of Iran where the authorities shut down 16 newspapers and magazines, and jailed their publishers.
If a journalist has been critical of a government's actions, such as a Nigerian journalist working in the African service who has reported on the case of Ken Saro-Wiwa, there is no way they can be safely returned to those countries. They are in a very similar situation to asylum seekers in that their lives could be in danger if they were deported.
What sets them apart from asylum seekers is that these are people who were invited to Britain because they have skiea Benjamin, a leading figure in Global Exchange, which played an important role in organising for Seattle, wrote afterwards:
'The mass, non-violent protests in Seattle represented the culmination of a months-long process of coalition-building by organisations.' But 'a small number of protesters took it upon themselves to break the sense of solidarity and collective cohesion...in the most sectarian manner' by 'breaking windows, overturning trash bins and looting; roughing up WTO delegates, store employees and customers; and blanketing downtown Seattle with graffiti'. This was 'negative in the eyes of the general public'.
Such arguments are not accidental. Nor can the problems be simply laid at the feet of 'anarchists'. They follow from the difficulties of achieving the goal the movement has set itself-- the magnificent but extremely awesome one of confronting the world system.
Protests like that at the meeting of the World Trade Organisation have been of enormous symbolic importaaralyse one of the biggest international broadcasters and would mount a serious challenge to the immigration policies of New Labour.
Bectu rep, BBC World Service
Socialist Review's account of asylum seeker bashers (June SR) rightly puts the blame on New Labour and the Tories. What you don't get on to is what ordinary Labour Party members think about all this.
As the person responsible for running Haringey Trades Council in north London, I have the task of maintaining links with the area's Labour MPs, included among which is asylum seeker basher Barbara Roche.
Ms Roche does not waste time trying to defend her policies in Haringey--indeed, her very rare public pronouncements on the matter locally are mildly pro-asylum. Given the influx of refugees into the area over the last 30 years or so, something that has added hugely to the life of Haringey, that is perhaps not surprising.
Perhaps Ms Roche also takes into account the frequent hostile criticisms of Labour Party members of her asylum policies by members of her own local Labour Party in Hornsey and Wood Green. Sadly these criticisms are largely made in private, but it is worthwhile recording that Ms Roche is so isolated in her own back yard.
I was disappointed to read TSSA described as a train drivers' union (June SR). Our union represents white collar rail staff in the transport and travel industry. Drivers are represented largely by ASLEF and the RMT, but definitely not TSSA.
It is also in my view more significant than debates about the environment that the views of delegates appeared more adamant that privatisation has proved itself incapable of running an effective and efficient railway in which safety has become secondary to profit. What came out very clearly was an acknowledgement that the market and 'partnership with employers' has contradictions, hence a vote which overwhelmingly overturned the executive committee in favour of legalising secondary industrial action. The other concrete change in mood was in support for the Anti Nazi League, which this year was not opposed outright by the leadership and came extremely close to being won.
It would appear that there is an element of crisis within the leadership of our union, who are finding it increasingly difficult to hold back industrial and political discontent. Their arguments in favour of partnership with employers look increasingly ridiculous to workers faced with increasingly brutal and greedy bosses. Those that hoped New Labour would eventually produce reforms for workers are left with a party that uses racism against asylum seekers, reneges on its promise to renationalise the rail, and continues to push through new privatisations such as air traffic control. This is hardly a winning platform within the trade union movement.
If the leadership of unions like TSSA are starting to lose their grip then there are clearly greater possibilities for socialists to offer an alternative.