Issue 248 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review





Poison and prejudice

Asylum seekers face dispersal when they come to Britain
Asylum seekers face dispersal when they come to Britain

In the run-up to the 1997 general election Tory MP Nicholas Budgen boasted that he always played the race card in elections. Budgen lost his seat and died shortly afterwards, but the Tory strategy of playing the race card did not die with him.

Last month William Hague shamelessly used the death of a young black boy, Damilola Taylor, to attack the report into the death of another young black man, Stephen Lawrence. Then Michael Heseltine used a Radio 4 interview to lay into asylum seekers. During his answer to a question about crime Heseltine suddenly switched tack to attack so called 'bogus' asylum seekers. It was a pre-planned exercise in scapegoating. Heseltine said, 'Let's not mince our language here. Why on earth should British citizens go without houses they want, or take longer to get treatment they need, in order to make way for people who have cheated the immigration rules?'

Heseltine's was a poisonous little diatribe designed to whip up prejudice against one of the most trampled upon sections of British society. Every assertion was a lie. Asylum seekers are not taking anyone's house. They are invariably put up in bed and breakfasts alongside the homeless and the unemployed, or in hard to let flats.

Refugee groups say that asylum seekers, put off by the stigma attached to them and language problems, are reluctant to use the National Health Service. This is despite many of them suffering terrible health as well as the physical and mental scars of torture. Asylum seekers are forced to exist on vouchers which add up to the equivalent of 80 percent of already meagre income support levels. Home Office surveys show that many asylum seekers are specialists, such as engineers or doctors, whose skills could be used.

On the same day as Heseltine whipped up his refugee scare, the Observer reported that asylum seekers are being plunged into further misery by government policy. New Labour's policy of dispersing asylum seekers is failing and is on the brink of collapse. Also the atmosphere it has created is fuelling racist attacks.

Rather than be isolated in remote towns and villages or stuck in near-derelict tower blocks, asylum seekers are returning to London for support from their communities. In doing so they are declared to have made themselves 'intentionally homeless' and are having all benefits cut off. Increasing numbers are now destitute. The government openly admits that these measures were drawn up to have a 'deterrent effect'

New Labour has no defence against the Tory race card because it too has eagerly played its part in demonising asylum seekers. Apart from the new draconian Asylum Act, New Labour has also used language such as 'bogus' to describe asylum seekers. Also hi-tech heat-seeking equipment is now being used at Britain's ports to detect asylum seekers who are stowing away, and more military-style camps are being built to lock them up.

The message is clear--the political establishment, both left and right, regards asylum seekers as a convenient target for scapegoating. The result has been awful. Last year 58 Chinese people suffocated to death in the back of a truck entering Dover. And at the beginning of this year a similar number of people were drowned trying to enter Europe from Turkey because they were locked in a ship's hold as it sank.

While those at the top of British society see asylum seekers as fair game, the message is played out on the streets. Whenever Hague has stoked racism in the past, racist attacks have shot up. Refugee organisations point to growing numbers of cases where asylum seekers are being picked on.

At the end of last year there were a number of serious attacks including that on Turkish refugee Cumali Sinangile. He was seriously beaten by a racist gang which had been thrown out of a south London pub seconds earlier.

We cannot look to New Labour to oppose the Tory witch-hunt against asylum seekers in the run-up to the general election. It will be up to anti-racists, socialists, refugee solidarity organisations and the trade unions to do that.

Trade union leaders, most notably the TGWU's Bill Morris, have clearly been revolted by New Labour's stance on the issue. This opens up the chance to mobilise workers against the scapegoating. Last year campaigns by groups such as the Committee to Defend Asylum Seekers did much to roll back the hatred. In the months ahead no one can afford to let the Tories play the race card unchallenged.
Hassan Mahamdallie


  • Debt relief, promised by the imf to the world's poorest nations, only amounts to a 29 percent reduction in debt service payments. Zambia will still be paying $168 million a year to its creditors out of a total budget of $800 million. In the past three decades living standards have dropped there by over 30 percent.
    Richard Branson
  • Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic is refusing to recognise the AEEU as the union to represent its 2,700 cabin crew. The union has been trying to win bargaining rights for nine months from Virgin management, who are refusing to disclose the result of the ballot on the grounds that 'there were mixed signals'.
  • Taxpayers are being robbed of millions of pounds from PFI deals. Huge gains are being made by refinancing projects at lower interest rates. Carillion and Group 4, which financed, built and runs Fazakerley prison in Liverpool, raised their expected rate of return on the deal by 75 percent. Refinancing gave them an extra 14 million, of which the Prison Service received only 1 million.

  • la cgt, en toute liberté

    What to make of the heated arguments generated by last month's summit of the European Union (EU) in Nice? There is little to be learnt from listening to the traditional row in parliament that follows such summits. The Tories again spluttered about the loss of Britain's sovereignty and national identity. Tony Blair proclaimed 'victory for Britain', as if the summit was just another cricket game and England had managed a rare win. As with all EU summits, the discussions took place in secret and the results were worded in jargon.

    The biggest issue discussed at Nice was how to prepare the EU institutions for 'enlargement'--admitting the 12 countries waiting to join. With the exceptions of Cyprus and Malta, these are all former Soviet bloc states led by Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.

    In theory this is something that all EU leaders favour. In practice there are two problems. Firstly, all of these states are poor, and to the extent that EU membership has been sold to their people, it is seen as a source of aid and investment. The strategy agreed by the existing member states is to have one set of rules for themselves, and another for any prospective new members when it comes to things like agricultural subsidies and development grants.

    The second problem is with how EU institutions would run. Since its creation real power in the EU (and European Community before it) has been with the European heads of state. The European Parliament is still a symbolic and toothless body--the democratic figleaf for the Council of Ministers. Any important decisions have to be taken by consensus of all states--the famous veto. If any small poor countries are to be let in, they cannot have the power to block initiatives by the established members. The solution is a system where any decision needs much more than a simple majority of votes, but where smaller states cannot act as a block. This system is usually known as qualified majority voting or QMV.

    From this point of view, the Nice summit was not a success. QMV was extended, but only to areas of minor significance. Tensions developed between the large and small states--Britain, France and Germany emerged with a stronger relative weight in the new voting arrangement. As the Financial Times commented, it 'could be an ill omen for the deadlock and indecision ahead in an enlarged EU'.

    The actual working of this voting system is incomprehensible to anyone without the right computer simulation model. It is a peculiar kind of democracy--one where you start from what results you want from future votes, and then try to construct a system most likely to achieve them. Will enlargement actually happen? The date set for the first possible new members joining is June 2004. This is an aspiration, not a deadline. There will be pressures to plough forward--but so far there has been a huge reluctance in practice to do anything more than talk.

    Perhaps the most interesting question is whether the EU will suffer the fate of the WTO. Until Seattle the WTO was safe away from the front pages, its complex negotiations presented as something too boring for ordinary people to understand. Nice saw the biggest demonstration ever outside an EU meeting, as 100,000 people marched. These protesters are not interested in providing the most favourable conditions for European capital to operate in. The more prominent such protests are, the greater the possibility of moving the debate about Europe away from the sterile one currently going on between New Labour and the Tories.
    Nicolai Gentchev


    Prisoners of the system

    Turkey's security forces brutally attacked hunger strikers held in the country's jails last month. Some 30 people have now died as a result. The repression was so brutal that eyewitnesses half a mile away could smell the teargas.

    The prisoners had been protesting for more than 60 days over plans to move prisoners from large dormitories to small isolation cells where they can be easily victimised. This rule would only apply to left wing prisoners. The government's prison policy is part of a continuing assault on the left in Turkey.

    This latest round of brutality comes amid a rising wave of workers' struggle. At the beginning of December over 1 million workers struck in the biggest general strike the country had seen since the military coup of 1980. Many cities held demonstrations of 50,000 people.

    Workers were protesting against the IMF-sponsored 'stability plan' being imposed by the government, which had just secured a $10 billion emergency 'aid' package. They took to the streets using the slogan 'A budget for the people, not the IMF'.

    The strikes and demonstrations have seriously worried some sections of government. This latest round of repression has shown how brutal they can be.
    Karen O'Toole


    Demonstration in Czech Republic
    Demonstration in Czech Republic

    Only a decade after the 1989 Velvet Revolution brought down the Stalinist regime 100,000 demonstrators once again take to the streets of Prague demanding the most basic democratic right--independence from political control of state television. Since Xmas eve journalists have occupied the newsroom of state television against the political appointment of director Jiri Hodac, who plans to privatise the television network. The Czech Republic was seen as the flagship of Eastern Europe's new democracies after 1989 but protesters are determined the fight for real democracy has yet to be won.


    The deadly dose

    The deadly dose

    Depleted uranium used during the Kosovo war is now leading to the deaths of western soldiers. Italy's military prosecutor is examining five fatalities among 20 cases which the Italian media is linking to so called 'Balkan syndrome', similar to Gulf War syndrome. Now it has been reported that a sixth person has died under similar circumstances.

    A leaked military document published at the end of December in La Repubblica admitted that Italian soldiers were dying of leukemia caused by depleted uranium. This has forced Italy's prime minister Giuliano Amato to demand Nato investigates the reasons for Balkan syndrome. He said, 'The affair is taking far too serious a turn and alarm is more than legitimate'.

    The deaths in Italy follow an outcry from Portugal following the death from leukemia of Hugo Paulino three weeks after coming home from 'peacekeeping' in Kosovo. The defence ministry in Portugal refused to release his body to his family for a post-mortem examination and radiation testing.

    US A10 attack jets are thought to have fired more than 31,000 rounds of depleted uranium ammunition during the war in Kosovo. The metal is used to pierce armoured vehicles because of its exceptional hardness.

    Anti-war campaigners argued at the time that depleted uranium would cause widespread cancer and other health problems both among the local population, where the deadly effects of the uranium will remain for many years, and also among the soldiers who served in the war. This is because the medical effects of depleted uranium are horrifying.

    It has been estimated that a single uranium oxide particle in the lung can expose the surrounding lung to 8,000 times the annual radiation dosage permitted for whole body exposure. Following the Gulf War, where depleted uranium was extensively used, it was estimated that there were around 630,000 pounds of depleted uranium waste in Iraq. Much of this found its way into the water table and eventually the food chain. The result was that the incidence of cancer in Iraq shot up following the war.

    Now the same is happening in Kosovo. We have yet to see the full impact this is having on the local population, who will undoubtedly suffer for many years to come. But the deadly result it is having on those soldiers who served in the war means this will be only the start of many other health problems to emerge.

    Pressure should be applied to ensure these weapons are banned immediately to prevent similar problems occurring in the future.
    Peter Morgan


    Time to deliver

    Vojislav Kostunica
    Vojislav Kostunica

    Three months ago Serbia's presidential elections sparked a revolution that overthrew the regime of Slobodan Milosevic. Last month the revolutionary whirlwind unleashed in October swept the new president, Vojislav Kostunica, and his DOS coalition to a landslide victory in Serbia's parliamentary elections, winning 176 seats out of 250.

    Milosevic's so called Socialist Party won only 37 seats while JUL, the party led by his wife Mira Markovic, once a leading player on the Serbian political scene, received a humiliating 0.38 percent of the vote and no seats. Neither violent clashes with rebels in the Albanian populated areas of southern Serbia close to the border with Kosovo, nor continuing threats of secession from Montenegro had the effect of reviving Milosevic's fortunes.

    Even with such a majority, however, there are serious question marks over what the DOS will be able to deliver. The early signs are that significant elements of the economic elite who prospered under Milosevic are hurrying to forge an equally close relationship with the new political masters of the Serbian state. Recently an official at Delta Bank, notorious for its close links to JUL, was appointed vice-governor of the Yugoslav National Bank.

    Many Serbs are justifiably sceptical that the new regime will be free of the corruption that accompanies crony capitalism.

    There are other question marks too. The bloated Serbian police and special forces that number 80,000 in a population of only 8 million, another Milosevic legacy, must be radically cut, but this will prove difficult if compromises with the upper echelons of the security apparatus continue to be made. Even General Pavkovic, the Milosevic loyalist who heads the Yugoslav Army, has not been dismissed.

    With an overwhelming government majority in parliament, a bankrupt opposition still led by Milosevic and Otpor! activists who are being co-opted into state positions, opposition to the new regime's free market strategy, at least for the foreseeable future, is most likely to come from below in the form of spontaneous strikes and street protests. In this context real socialist arguments can make an impact but only if they are based on principled opposition both to the free market and to shoddy compromises with the old regime.
    Dragan Plavsic


    Revolutionary mindset

    Jelena Sljivar
    Jelena Sljivar

    Jelena Sljivar from Otpor! spoke to us recently in London about how the Milosevic regime was overthrown.
    'In the last ten years the average salary in Yugoslavia has dropped to 30 a month, while the cheapest flat costs 60. People don't have enough money to live and there were no goods in the shops. We were also fighting for freedom of speech, against the repressive laws that were introduced before Otpor! ever existed. These laws clamped down on gatherings and free speech, in the universities and the media.

    So we organised against the regime. One of these was 'A dinar for the regime'. We put out a barrel with Milosevic's picture all over it, and people could put in one dinar [approximately a penny] in order to smack the barrel with a hammer. Anyone who didn't put in one dinar could smack him twice, because he made them so poor that they didn't even have one dinar. We were collecting the money for Milosevic so that he would have enough money to retire. It was the kind of action that would draw people towards us. The other thing that was really important in getting people involved was the personal sacrifice that activists made. This was the backbone of our organisation. We were constantly getting arrested. One guy was arrested 17 times. That kind of repression made people help us even more.

    Nato's bombing in 1999 didn't make Milosevic weaker it made him stronger. But people were really angry. They were sick and tired of everything that was happening. The hard thing was to convince them that they could do something about it.

    The recent elections were the most successful in the history of Yugoslavia. We are involved in a campaign called "We are watching you". This is aimed at the former government, who are trying to twist and turn to stay in power, and use all kinds of manipulation. But it is also aimed at the new government. We will keep an eye on what they do.

    The revolution of 5 October was not a revolution against socialism. It was not an ideological revolution at all. It was a revolution in people's mindset. Finally after ten years people realised that they don't need any leaders, that they themselves count.'


    Home truths

    • Corporate executives of companies in the FTSE 100 earn 752,000 a year on average. Are they satisfied? A hint comes from figures showing that their earnings rose by an average of 18.6 percent in 2000--four times the growth of the average earnings of the rest of us.
      Source: Financial Times 2.10.2000

    • People struggling to work on trains run by Connex South East and Connex South Central, or paying inflated water bills to Three Valleys, might be interested to know about Vivendi, the media and utilities group that owns these rail and water companies. Vivendi's chairman, Jean-Marie Messier, has to get by on a miserly wage of 1.8 million a year, and the group's profits rose to a mere 840 million in the first half of 2000.
      Source: Guardian 3.10.2000

    • WTO and EU leaders are planning the next stage of GATS (general agreement on trade and services). Their aim is to prise open lucrative new markets by enabling multinationals to buy government-run services such as the provision of water, electricity and transport. Any government elected to resist such moves will face trade sanctions imposed by the unelected WTO. The Coalition of Service Industries, a US lobby group, is itching to get its hands on healthcare in Europe, while the European Services Forum can't wait to break into the developing world's utilities markets.
      Note 1: Our very own health secretary, Alan Milburn, is allowing the private sector a greater role in the NHS and is extending Private Finance Intitiatives (PFIs) to 18 new private hospitals. These schemes will cost an estimated 18 billion for us to lease them back.
      Source: Observer 3.12.2000
      Note 2: The Italian government announced new sales to corporations of state holdings worth an estimated 7.5 billion. The industries involved include electricity, oil and gas, telecommunications, and banking.
      Source: Financial Times 6.12.2000
      Note 3: The Vietnamese authorities recently gave away most of their rights to their own gas by signing agreements with a multinational consortium led by BP Amoco to supply the country with gas.
      Source: Financial Times 5.12.2000
      Note 4: Sir John Browne, chief executive of BP Amoco, the company with such a fine reputation in countries such as Colombia, has been given First magazine's award for 'responsible capitalism'. This follows Management Today magazine's award to the same man as the most admired business leader.
      Source: Financial Times 5.12.2000

    • Fact 1: High oil prices are impoverishing millions of us.
      Fact 2: Shell, BP and eight other oil companies will generate nearly 75 billion surplus cash in 2000, according to a report by USB Warburg.
      Fact 3: The GDP of Tanzania, home to around 33 million people, is about 6 billion.
      Sources: Guardian 3.10.2000 and country surveys

    • 'Attacking Poverty' was the title of the World Bank's 2000/1 report. The report claimed that open trade regimes have supported growth and development--but where, and for who?
      Fact 1: Before trade liberalisation, between 1960 and 1980, income per head in Africa grew by a third.
      Fact 2: Under the World Bank's structural adjustment programmes of the past 20 years, income per head in Africa fell by a quarter. But wait--another World Bank paper, 'The Simultaneous Evolution of Growth and Inequality', found that greater openness to trade is strongly associated with income growth among the top 60 percent of the population, but 'correlated negatively with income growth among the bottom 40 percent'.
      Fact 3: The poorest 40 percent of the population is 2.5 billion people.
      Perhaps a better title for the 2000/1 report would have been 'Attacking the Poor, Enriching the Rich'.
      Note: Professor Ravi Kanbar, editor of the report, resigned in May 2000 because of what the report was trying to hide.
      Source: Observer 3.12.2000

    • Spot the difference
      'Real progress is being made to combat the legacy of poverty this government inherited' (Alistair Darling, social security secretary, December 2000).
      There are now 14 million adults in households with less than half the average income--nearly 1 million more than in the early 1990s and more than double the number in the early 1980s. Among them are 8 million adults with disposable income less than 40 percent of the national average--half a million more than in 1996/7, the last full year of Tory rule.
      Source: December 2000 report on poverty by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

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