Asylum legislation fuels racist attacks
The attacks on refugees living in Dover in August 1999 were fuelled by a racist press and the populist, right-wing New Labour government which has repeatedly targeted asylum seekers in speeches and legislation.
Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, panders to the far-right Tory press like the Daily Mail, with lurid tales of "bogus" asylum seekers who want to come to Britain to live off state benefits.
Straw attacks "bogus" travellers for their alleged criminal activity, and refugees fleeing war, terror, starvation and absolute poverty, are fair game for the authoritarian New Labour regime.
When New Labour won the 1997 election, it inherited racist Tory legislation of the previous year. This removed benefits from refugees – including entitlement to shelter – who do not apply for asylum at their port of entry, and from applicants who had been refused asylum pending appeal.
As a result, many refugees have ended up destitute, cared for by churches and charities or working for a pittance without proper papers. Not satisfied with these draconian laws, in 1998 Straw published proposals for a new Asylum Bill, which is now before parliament and which will:
The aim is to stop refugees coming to Britain, by making it an unwelcoming place. This runs counter to the UN convention and contrasts with treatment by other European states.
Many organisations say the Bill panders to racism. The measures dispersing asylum seekers, forbidding them to work and introducing vouchers, been criticised by the Refugee Council, which says: "A system based on vouchers degrades and stigmatises asylum seekers by singling them out as different from the general population."
The vouchers scheme is particularly nasty. Shops are being told not to give change in cash, and there are already
cases where stores have refused to accept them. Vouchers will be worth only 70% of Income Support, putting
refugees well below the absolute poverty line. Many will wait 18 months or more for a decision on whether they can stay – far longer than Labour's proposed six-month waiting time.
The voucher scheme will also be more expensive, with a 300-strong unit set up at the Home Office to run the new system.
The wars in former Yugoslavia and the continued oppression of the Kurds helped produce more than 30,000 applications in the first six months of this year, almost double the total in the first six months of 1998. The vast majority take the short trip from Calais to Dover.
It is a small town of 25,000 people, and currently houses about 1,000 asylum seekers, many of whom have been there for over a year. After mounting tension in August, 11 people were hurt as right wing extremists fought asylum seekers and the government admitted to "refugee dumping".
The situation was also exacerbated by the racist attitude of national and local media. An editorial in the Folkstone Herald and Dover Express last autumn bemoaned the invasion of "illegal immigrants, asylum-seekers, boot-leggers, drug-dealers, the scum of the Earth…We are left with the back draft of a nation of human sewage, and no cash to wash it down the drain."
The position is made worse by the fact that New Labour – like the Tories before them – has starved local authorities of the resources to help asylum seekers with housing, education and other services. As a result, London councils have taken to dispersing refugees around the country.
Many now live in run-down bed-and-breakfast accommodation on the south coast, separated from settled communities that already exist in other parts of Britain, and prey to racist attacks.
The belief that more refugees "flood" into Britain is a myth. Ten European countries take more refugees (on a per capita basis) than Britain does. Britain found a home for a mere 0.05% of the world's refugees in 1997, according to the Refugee Council.
However, throughout Western Europe, the trend over the last 20 years has been for more draconian immigration and asylum laws, a reaction to right-wing domestic pressures and to implement the EC's "Fortress Europe" policy.
A key factor in the desire of people to leave their countries is not only to escape persecution but also the increased poverty arising from globalisation and the growing inequality between the advanced capitalist countries and developing nations. People want a better life for themselves and especially for their children. But if they succeed in reaching Britain, they will be targeted by the Home Office, racist newspapers and New Labour ministers.
That is why socialists have a duty to oppose completely the Asylum Bill and the New Labour government that introduced it, and to fight for an end to all racist immigration laws.
For further information, see www.refugeecouncil.co.uk