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Asylum - What We Say
TONY BLAIR is planning to introduce new harsh measures against asylum seekers while simultaneously embarking on a war against Iraq that will create hundreds of thousands more refugees. Christine Thomas and Naomi Byron look at the real asylum situation and discuss the socialist alternative.
Decent services for all
"Asylum rush causes crisis for schools"
Sun headline, 6 February
SCAREMONGERING HEADLINES like this fuel the anger that ordinary people already feel about underfunded schools, an NHS in crisis and lack of decent housing.
That anger can then be directed against asylum seekers rather than the real causes of lack of resources for working-class people - the pro-big business policies that all the established parties pursue at local and, in the case of the Tories and now New Labour, at national level.
There is a strong feeling that politicians are completely out of touch with the lives of ordinary people. They don't know what it's like to have to send your kids to schools where there's a shortage of teachers, to not be able to afford a decent place to live or to wait weeks just to get an appointment with a local GP.
Ordinary people have no real say about what happens in our local communities. In Sittingbourne in Kent, a decision to use the only local hotel as an induction centre for asylum seekers was greeted with a huge campaign of opposition by local people.
There's no doubt that some of that opposition was based on prejudice and racism, whipped up by the media and far right groups, and reinforced by New Labour's own asylum policies.
But the main objection voiced by many people was that there had been no consultation with local people about the decision to convert the hotel which was used by the community for wedding receptions, etc.
Placing asylum seekers in poor areas that are already suffering from overstretched and underfunded local services, with no proper consultation with the local community, without extra resources and without local, democratic control, is bound to breed resentment.
We need more funding for local services that can meet the needs of all of the community, including asylum seekers. There is no shortage of wealth in Britain but it is owned and controlled by a minority in whose interests this New Labour government operates.
New Labour cuts in corporation tax mean that £11 billion a year is being given to the bosses rather than being invested in public services.
We have crumbling schools and growing NHS waiting lists but this government will find up to £3.5 billion for a war with Iraq, which the majority of people in this country don't want, which will be waged for the benefit of the giant oil multinationals and which will create thousands more refugees.
To win the extra funding that is needed to provide decent public services for all working-class people, we need to organise together in a united campaign involving the trade unions and the local community. This should entail drawing up a budget based on local needs, including those of asylum seekers, and demanding that the resources are made available by central government.
In Liverpool in the 1980s, when Militant (the forerunner of the Socialist Party) had an influential position on the city council, this kind of campaign including mass protests and strikes, forced the Thatcher government to release extra money that was then used to build decent houses, nurseries, sports centres etc.
If local councillors continue to carry out Labour's cuts agenda, then community, trade union and socialist candidates who are prepared to wage a struggle should stand against them in local elections on an anti-cuts and anti-racist platform.
An alternative system
THERE IS no doubt that the current asylum system isn't working. It creates unnecessary suffering for refugees and can sow divisions between asylum seekers and local communities.
Refugees should have the right to enter Britain by legal routes. Once here, their application should be dealt with promptly so that they do not have to put up with the current huge delays which cause uncertainty and hardship.
While applications are being processed, asylum seekers should be able to work with the same employment rights as other workers - not forced to work illegally in the 'black' economy in slave labour and dangerous conditions, in order to survive.
Many asylum seekers have skills which are in short supply and could be employed in areas such as the health service.
If asylum seekers are unable to work then they should receive benefits at normal rates. While waiting for a decision on their application, asylum seekers and their children should be housed, educated and have access to health care in local communities, not segregated in isolated detention centres with second-rate facilities.
Central government should free the resources to ensure that all people in every local community have access to decent public services.
Asylum seekers who have their application refused should be able to appeal to an elected tribunal, including representatives of trade unions, refugee and community organisations.
Committees made up of trade unions, community organisations and organisations representing refugees should have a say in where asylum seekers are housed so that they are not 'dumped' in local areas without back-up, support, advice networks or adequate resources.
What's socialism got to do with it?
THE UN estimates that there are over 15 million refugees worldwide and 30 million people displaced within their own country.
Repressive regimes, war and conflict, economic crisis and natural disasters - these are the conditions that create refugees internationally. And these conditions are the consequences of the capitalist system which is based on exploitation, competition and the pursuit of profit; a system which New Labour and the other main political parties represent.
It's this system that condemns 1.2 billion people to live on less than $1 a day; that means that the world's richest 200 companies have combined sales worth more than the GDP of all but ten nations in the world; that globally wastes $1 trillion a year on military spending.
It's because of this system that capitalist governments back the sale of arms to repressive regimes and wage war in the interests of the big multinational oil companies. And it's this same system that denies working-class people in Britain decent housing, jobs, education, health care etc. while boosting the profits of big business.
We are campaigning against a war with Iraq, which could result in thousands of deaths and create millions of refugees. We support the struggle of workers, the poor and oppressed people against Saddam Hussein and against repressive regimes internationally.
We campaign to end the stranglehold that the multinational corporations and their institutions like the IMF and the World Bank have over economies worldwide.
We are fighting for a society were the world's resources are democratically owned, controlled and planned to meet the needs of the majority, not the privileged few.
ON 8 February a 22 -year-old Afghan asylum seeker was beaten to death as he walked through a park in Southampton. Four Afghans had reported attacks in the city in the previous two months. In Plymouth, three Iraqi asylum seekers were beaten up in broad daylight.
Organisations which monitor racial abuse report an increase in attacks on asylum seekers. And no wonder given the virulent anti-asylum propaganda that has appeared recently in right-wing newspapers like the Sun, Mail and Express.
Even the UN has criticised the "hysterical" coverage of asylum by the British media. The Nazi British National Party declared on its website that the British press was helping to spread their message.
The Sun claims that over half a million people have signed its 'petition' to Tony Blair, demanding action to stop illegal immigration to the UK. Their 'campaign' is mainly an attempt to boost sales. As The Daily Mirror positions itself as anti-war in order to cash in on the growing radicalisation in Britain, The Sun has decided to cynically exploit ordinary people's worries about underfunded schools, hospitals, housing, crime and terrorism to have a go at asylum seekers.
Tony Blair, David Blunkett and other New Labour ministers try to distance themselves from the most extreme anti-asylum seeker attacks in the media, but their hardline comments and policies help fuel a climate of misinformation and mistrust which endangers the lives of refugees and causes them hardship and distress.
Asylum seekers are convenient scapegoats for a government under siege over war with Iraq, and a convenient distraction from strikes by firefighters and mounting unrest in the public sector generally. It suits New Labour if people blame refugees for overstretched and under-resourced services rather than blaming their economic policies of cuts and privatisation and mounting a campaign against them.
MOST PEOPLE in Britain support the right to asylum for refugees facing persecution.
There is no way that The Sun would have got anything like such a big response in their campaign against 'illegal' refugees (though we only have their word for the number of signatures) if they had not included support for legal immigration, including "those who face genuine persecution or bring a skill to our economy" in their 'petition'.
But instead of trying to tell the truth about the asylum system, papers like The Sun and The Daily Mail deliberately mix up all kinds of issues in order to create fear and panic. Through their 'campaign' against illegal immigration, the right-wing press will make life even harder for those who need protection. Their propaganda strongly suggests that anyone who enters the country illegally must be 'bogus'.
Entering the country illegally doesn't mean that someone isn't in need of asylum. Many refugees are forced to break the law in order to claim asylum in the UK. This is because the law says that foreign nationals must have a passport and valid travel documents (e.g. visas) to enter the country.
Many refugees are forced to flee their homes with little or no notice, without time to organise travel documents. For many refugees, persecuted by their government, applying to it for travel documents to escape is not an option.
Refugees without valid passports and visas are forced to turn to people-traffickers who will help them for a price. Often they will provide false travel documents. A member of the gang will travel with the refugees and take the false documents back after the journey has been completed.
Alternatively refugees can be smuggled across international borders in ships or in the backs of lorries. This is cheaper, but more risky - hundreds, possibly thousands of migrants die each year travelling this way.
Harsh measures won't work
"IN THE end, the only way of dealing with this is to stop the numbers coming in" Tony Blair
New Labour's asylum policy is based on the idea that 'cracking down' will reduce the number of refugees seeking asylum in Britain. This has resulted in extremely harsh measures that are supposed to act as a deterrent to anyone who is not a 'genuine' refugee.
The latest 'crack down' involved removing benefits from anyone who doesn't apply for asylum as soon as they enter the country. Even the government admitted that this would result in 700 people a week being made destitute. Now the courts have declared this illegal. Blair has also raised the idea of opting out of international laws safeguarding human rights.
In the real world, these kind of draconian measures will not have a fundamental effect in stopping refugees seeking asylum in Britain, but they will cause enormous distress for those who do, most of whom have already been severely traumatised by torture and repression in the countries that they are fleeing from.
A recent European Union report concluded that 'push' factors such as war and repression far outweigh 'pull' factors such as 'generous' benefits in European countries or economic hardship when refugees seek asylum.
The Home Office's own research found that most refugees have little or no information about procedures in the countries they are fleeing to -many don't even know that they can access benefits at all.
Over 40% of asylum seekers entering Britain come from Iraq, Zimbabwe, Somalia and Afghanistan.
These are all countries which have been racked by war, conflict and repression. Now Blair is on the verge of launching another war against Iraq which agencies expect to result in a humanitarian disaster causing millions of refugees.
War, conflict, terror and economic devastation are the inevitable consequences of this capitalist system. While these conditions exist worldwide, desperate people will continue to seek asylum regardless of how harsh the system is in Britain or elsewhere.
- In 2002 110,000 people applied for asylum in Britain - 1.8% of the world's refugees.
- Britain comes 10th in the EU table of asylum applications per head of population.
- Pakistan has 2.2 million refugees. Iran has 1.9 million.
- By far and away the biggest group of asylum seekers to the UK last year were from Iraq.
- The UN estimates that a war in Iraq will create two million refugees.
- 50% of asylum seekers were granted refugee status or exceptional leave to remain in the UK in 2002.
- Migrants contributed £2.5 billion to the economy in 1999-2000.
- Asylum seekers are not entitled to work. Those who qualify for support and are awaiting a decision receive 70% of income support levels.
- There are over 700,000 empty homes in Britain.
In The Socialist 14 March 2003: