Labour hypocrisy over refugee deaths

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The 58 young Chinese found dead in the back of a lorry at Dover are among 300 illegal immigrants found dead in similar circumstances world wide in the last two years. Fourteen others are known, by the forged documents they carried, to have been heading for Britain. These horrific deaths have stimulated politicians to decry the evil gangs who traffic in human beings, with scant regard for human life. What hypocrisy! For most of this year, both Labour government and Tory opposition, particularly Jack Straw, William Hague and Ann Widdecombe, have been competing to be toughest on ‘bogus asylum seekers’. So virulent has this campaign been that Nick Griffin of the openly racist British National Party, noted "government ministers play the race card in far cruder terms than we would ever use".

Suddenly Blair and co have noticed that people fleeing war, repression or poverty are victims and not just ‘bogus’ or ‘beggars’. However, they do not want anyone to recognise that they are victims of capitalism in decomposition, but put all the blame on the gangs who transport them. But most of all their hypocrisy is shown by the fact that they are still toughening up the measures to keep them out of the country.

Government attacks on refugees

The government has tightened up border controls since it came into power 3 years ago. Resources are put into detecting illegals at Kent ports, and X-ray detectors are proposed; lorry drivers are fined £2,000 for every one detected on board; increased policing of the Eurostar has been announced. Those who do get in and claim asylum are getting worse and worse treatment. No longer can they get income support, but a sum worth only 70% of this, some of which is in vouchers. They are being dispersed around the country, deprived of the necessary translation and community support, in appalling conditions in buildings identified as housing refugees, making them a sitting target for racist attacks. Applications are being processed more quickly; only one appeal is now allowed instead of two; and detention is being used to ensure that those denied asylum really do get kicked out of the country as quickly as possible. Both Tory and Labour are agreed that these ‘bogus’ asylum seekers should be put in detention centres to hold men, women and children - in other words, concentration camps.

It is no accident that immigration controls are being tightened up at this time as all the miser at this time as all the misery that drives people to flee their homes is worsening across the globe. The economic crisis leaves millions with no adequate means to support themselves - from Eastern Europe, following the collapse of the Russian bloc, to the Asian ‘tigers’ so badly hit in 1997 and 1998, to Africa where huge areas are simply left to rot. War and genocide is destroying the Balkans (ex-Yugoslavia) and large parts of Africa. These are the circumstances that led to an exponential increase in illegal immigrants being discovered at British ports from 61 in 1991, to 661 in 1996, to 16,000 last year (The Sunday Times, 25.6.00). Since the beginning of the twentieth century Britain, like all other great powers, has always responded to an increase in refugees by increasing border controls. The first immigration law was brought in 1905 to keep out ‘aliens’ fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. In 1938 new controls were brought in to keep out Jews and anyone else fleeing Nazi Germany. Jack Straw’s 1999 Asylum and Immigration Act simply follows this great British tradition. Clearly the state and the members of the government do not care one jot for the lives of refugees and others whose lives are being destroyed by capitalism, whatever outcry it makes when refugees die trying to get into the country.

Governments have not always been keen to keep immigrants out. In the 1950s they were encouraged to come here from the Commonwealth, particularly the Caribbean, to provide cheap labour for the post-war reconstruction. The difference between government policy then and now is not a question of left or right, racism or anti-racism, but quite simply the needs of national capital. When it needs labour, immigrants are allowed in; when it is in crisis, when there are huge numbers of refugees abroad and growing unemployment at home, they are a ‘menace’ to be controlled if not kept out at all costs.

Fairness and humanitarianism simply do not come into the government’s calculations. Any appeal to the government on these grounds or according to the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees simply covers this brutal reality of capitalism.

Labour and Tories use ‘asylum seekers’

Before the 58 people were found dead ‘asylum seekers’ had provided both government and opposition with a scapegoat for the problems faced by British capital. In a campaign vigorously supported by the tabloid press, immigrants have all become ‘bogus asylum seekers’, w45;bogus asylum seekers’, who have been blamed for inner city lawlessness because some are forced into begging; and for the soaring cost of supporting them which has risen ... to £900million, a tiny sum compared to that spent by Britain on imperialist adventures abroad. Finding a scapegoat is extremely important at the present time as the crisis is leading to greatly increased attacks on the working class, with massive redundancies as in the steel and car industries, and increased pressure on those at work (see ‘The reality of economic attacks’ on page 2).

The inevitable result of this campaign has been the doubling of serious and often murderous racist attacks, randomly targetting anyone who looks ‘foreign’. It is difficult to believe that our ruling class, with its spin doctors and focus groups to predict and manage the response to every change in propaganda and policy, did not expect and count on this increase in attacks. It is certainly something the government will gain from.

The increase in racist attacks, the increased activity of the far right, openly racist organisations, like the BNP, which are legitimised by government attacks on asylum seekers, also provides a cover for the government. For those not convinced by the scapegoating t convinced by the scapegoating of refugees and immigrants, another scapegoat is provided, the far right and racism. In the end, while the Labour government has played a decisive part in whipping up the racism, it gains from the involvement of left Labour MPs and its more leftist supporters in anti-racist campaigns. This was true in the 1970s with the growth of the National Front and the Anti-Nazi League. Similarly, Mitterand gained from the success of Le Pen in France in the 1980s.

Left cover for the government

The demonstration to ‘defend asylum seekers’ on 24th June was a clear example of the way the left and ‘anti-racist’ campaigns provide a left cover for the anti-immigration policies of the Labour government. First of all it counted the Labour MP, Tony Benn, as one of its organisers, alongside Socialist Worker and ‘civil rights’ and immigrant organisations. Similarly, the Asylum Rights Campaign meeting on 29th June announced Diane Abbott, another Labour MP, as its chair. This is followed up with a range of excuses that are constantly made for government attacks: "New Labour is bowing down to the Tories and stepping up its attacks on refugees" (Socialist Worker 17.6.00); "New Labour no doubt set out to make ‘old fashioned’ racism against blacks, Asians and others a thing of the past.." (Socialist Review June 2000) or "...a New Labour team that has learned nothing from the failures of past Labour governments." (Socialist Outlook June 2000). The reality is that the class that developed Machiavellianism does not choose well-meaning bunglers to run its state, but cynical manipulators who knew exactly what they were doing when they whipped up racism with the campaign against ‘bogus asylum seekers’. Just as the Trotskyist organisations which cynically told us to vote Labour ‘with no illusions’ three years ago knew exactly what sort of government they were supporting.

The slogans on the recent demonstration made no effort to challenge the government campaign’s division between ‘asylum seekers’ and ‘economic migrants’ but, instead, focussed exclusively on the issue of ‘asylum seekers’ and the Geneva Convention.

In other words, they fostered illusions in the British ‘democratic’ state and its Labour government.

For as long as capitalism exists people will be forced to migrate, to flee the imperialist conflagrations or to leave the areas devastated by the worst ravages of the economic crisis. At the same time the ruling class will use the deaths if its victims to strengthen repression and border controls. Such is the old-fashioned hypocrisy of ‘New’ Labour.