Photo credit: Rasande Tyskar

By Dave Stockton

The Conservative party conference is traditionally a forum for racist rabble rousing by Tory Home Secretaries about the “threat” of immigration. With Donald Trump still in the White House and a hard Brexit looming on the horizon, Priti Patel’s speech this year was no different. Herself the daughter of Ugandan Asians – the target of Enoch Powell’s agitation in the 1970s, Patel used the podium to claim her attacks on ‘illegal’ Channel crossings were really targeted at “people smugglers” putting people’s lives at risk.

In fact it is the UK government’s massive restrictions on refugees applying for asylum and providing safe passage for them that is putting lives in danger and providing exploitative people smugglers with an income into the bargain. Moreover, Patel viciously attacked those trying to help them, lumping together all those “defending the broken system – the traffickers, the do-gooders, the lefty lawyers, the Labour Party”.

Hammering away on the lie that these refugees are “illegal” ignores the fact that the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees, signed by Britain in 1951, makes clear that people fleeing war, violence and persecution are entitled to do so by what would normally be illegal routes, and that refugees are entitled to claim asylum in a country of their choice. The position of the UK and most of the EU governments is that they should claim asylum in the first state beyond their own borders. This ignores the fact that the vast majority of refugees never make it anywhere near Europe or the peaceful and wealthier Western states. Tens of millions remain trapped in impoverished and war torn countries like Libya and Lebanon.

Patel claims that she “welcomes people through safe and legal routes” – but will “stop [people] making endless legal claims to remain”. In fact, thanks to the Tory and Coalition governments’ slashing of legal aid provision, many refugees are not offered free legal assistance when they arrive – except by so-called “do-gooders”.

In reality only about 7,000 people fleeing persecution have risked their lives to cross the Channel in tiny boats. Yet Britain is a rich country – or rather a country with fabulously rich ruling class, paying laughably little tax – for whom giving safe and secure refuge to penniless asylum seekers would be a drop in the ocean of their wealth.

Just to show that she wasn’t just attacking asylum seekers she attacked the “hooliganism and thuggery” of Black Lives Matter protesters who “have called for us to defund the police”, “It is not acceptable for mobs to tear down statues and cause criminal damage across our streets.”

Concentration in camps

Of course, the Tory press joined in the attacks. More shocking to some, perhaps, were the comments of a Labour member of the House of Lords, Baron West of Spithead, a retired Admiral and First Sea Lord, and under-secretary of state for security and counter-terrorism in Gordon Brown’s cabinet. He said to the BBC:

“We can arrest as many as we like. Until we resolve the way we deal with them in this country and get agreement from France and other European nations to take them back then we’re stuck with them, and we need to deal with them in a concentrated place, whether it’s a camp or whatever”.

Naturally the call for concentration camps for refugees caused outrage – though people should remember Britain invented and repeatedly used them – in South Africa, Malaya and Kenya.

In fact, some of the camps he is calling for already exist. An interview with a group of asylum seekers in the Morning Star (October 20), living in the former Napier Barracks near Folkestone, reports one of them as saying it is “like living in a prison” one in which there are 400 ‘inmates’.

One Yemeni said though he was lucky fortunate to share a room with just one other person, some sleep in 14-bed rooms with no partitions, making privacy and the option of social distancing impossible. And when they leave the barracks they are subjected to abuse in the streets and far right activists have demonstrated outside.

Another camp is located on a former military training camp of metal huts located in in Penally, Pembrokeshire, housing up to 230 people. One young refugee reported “It’s not good for human people here. It’s very cold and we are six people in a very small room. It is too many. We can’t social distance”. He added, “We are not army, we are civic people. We are an engineer, a doctor, a nurse, a teacher.”

Tory schemes

Just before the Tory Conference the government stepped up its onslaught. Many refugees received letters declaring that as a “failed asylum seeker” they would be evicted from the hotel accommodation they had been provided with in the first months of the Covid-19 lockdown and all support would end on October 7 and threatening that “if you do not take reasonable steps to leave (the UK) you face action to enforce your departure”.

In late September Priti Patel openly floated plans to confine “illegal” refugees in decommissioned ferries moored off the south coast and, according to information leaked to the Financial Times, asked for feasibility studies on deporting asylum seekers to Ascension Island and St Helena. These are barren volcanic islands in the mid-Atlantic, equidistant between Brazil and the Congo. Given a press outcry this was quickly disavowed.

But not to be discouraged Downing Street – i.e. Johnson and his advisers – were pressing civil servants for plans for deportations to Moldova, Morocco and even New Guinea. Even more ludicrous reports say the Home Office was asked to investigate “wave machines” which would push refugee dinghies back across the Channel! Of course much of this is doubtless playing to the Tories’ racist voting base – rather on the Trump model – and has little chance of seeing the light of day. But via the Tory tabloids it keeps the anti-immigrant pot simmering.

Last but not least are the effects of Brexit. It should never be forgotten that anti-immigrant racism played a decisive part in its narrow victory – coming as it did in the immediate aftermath of the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis. This was cynically exploited by the Leave Campaign (in which Boris Johnson was a key figure). Its infamous poster showing a column of mainly Syrian refugees somewhere in the Balkans with the slogan “Breaking point  – take back control of our borders”  galvanized the Leave campaign and set the tone for discussion of immigration and Europe for years to come.

Now as we approach the denouement of this chauvinist campaign, the British government is sweating over the likely results. Though it never signed up to the EU’s relocation of refugees and took far fewer than most major continental countries, it is now trying to negotiate the continuation of its ‘right’ to deport them to the EU country they first entered. Not unnaturally the EU is refusing to do a deal. With no deal there is even a likelihood that France will end its deal which allowed British border authorities to operate on French soil.

Labour

As to Labour’s policy – in words certainly – it is sharply different Johnson and Patel’s cruel and inhumane statements or those of its own ex-Admiral in the House of Lords. One of the high points of the Corbyn movement came from the activists of the grassroots Labour Campaign for Free movement. On the final day of the 2019 Conference, a resolution was passed which demanded the preservation and extension of free movement between the Britain and the EU, the closure of all detention centres and the awarding of equal voting rights to all UK residents. Although it was passed virtually unanimously, it was immediately disavowed by Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn and what appeared in the manifesto was a truncated and gutless concession to anti-immigrant sentiment.

“We will end indefinite detention, review the alternatives to the inhumane conditions of detention centres, and close Yarl’s Wood and Brook House.”

On asylum more narrowly it was more specific:

 “This government has failed its international legal obligations to refugees and to allow people to exercise their rights to seek asylum. A Labour government will uphold those rights and meet those obligations. We will work with others to resume rescue missions in the Mediterranean, co-operate with the French authorities to put an end to the horrific camps, and establish safe and legal routes for asylum seekers. Once here, refugees will have the right to work, access to public services and will be treated humanely by government at all levels.”

However, Labour lost the election and leaders pay as little regard to old manifestos as they do to conference policy. Nevertheless, we can and should do all we can to hold them to them. First and foremost, we should demand Labour MPs speak out against all the Patel’s proposed immigration “radical reform” and vote against it at every stage.

But for the future at least the action shifts to the movement of protest against them on the streets and in working class and communities of immigrant origin; and to organizing solidarity with those trying to reach British shores and protection against racist harassment.

Alongside fighting to hold Labour MPs to policy passed by members, we need to call for an end to all deportations; for the release from the camps of asylum seekers, and the provision of decent accommodation and legal advice with their claims; for the opportunity to work or enter full-time education and training.

No one is Illegal!

Open the Borders!

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