The Illegal Immigration Bill is at present working its way through parliament, with only luke-warm opposition from Labour. Labour’s shadow immigration minister, who sits on the neo-liberal wing of the Party, Stephen Kinnock, said:
“We on these benches are absolutely clear that we must bring the dangerous Channel crossings to an end and that we must destroy the criminal activity of the people smugglers. [But this bill only offers] headline chasing gimmicks which are the stock and trade of the benches opposite.” He said, “even with the measures proposed, the boats will keep on coming, the backlog will keep on growing and the hotels will keep on filling”, and said the plan was “not really worth the paper it is written on” and was “a dog’s breakfast”.
This is not a clear attack on the character of the bill which has been widely described on the Left as racist and where the language used around it has been compared to that used by the Nazis in the 1930s. Gary Lineker, a football pundit, was solidly supported by his colleagues when the BBC tried to sanction him for on-line comments critical of words being used by Tory ministers around this issue. These ministers used pejorative terms such as, “an invasion or swarm of immigrants,” which are indeed evocative of Nazi invective. This is again evidence of Labour focussing its opposition in the wrong direction, by failing to unequivocally criticise the racist character of the bill. Even former Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, was much more coherent and persuasive in his criticism of the bill by saying that the bill was, “dangerous.” He went onto say that,
“We are not swamped by refugees… we have a system, an asylum system, run by an incompetent government… what is maybe the most morally outrageous thing about this whole debate is that these people, whether they are genuine asylum seekers or not… they are being blamed for the government’s incompetence. What a moral outrage.”
There are Labour MPs who are prepared to speak out openly and clearly against the bill, such as Jeremy Corbyn and Richard Burgan, but these voices are marginalised on the left of the Party and in the case of Corbyn, denied the right to stand for Labour in the next election.
Rising confidence of the far-right
There is also a background to the bill of rising confidence on the part of the far right. This is fuelled by the far-right rhetoric of the Conservative Party. However, far-right stunts around hotels housing refugees and asylum seekers have failed to build, since the worrying event in Liverpool in February, when hundreds of the far-right protested outside a hotel for refugees. Stand Up To Racism co-convener Weyman Bennett said:
“The government’s new Bill is yet another vicious assault on the rights of refugees and is about whipping up racist division to scapegoat refugees and migrants. It is part of the racist rhetoric and policies that gives confidence to and fans the flames of the far right and fascist forces, who are actively organising in an attempt to build a racist movement against refugees.”
However, wherever the far-right is organising anti-racist activists and sympathisers are organising too and won’t be taken by surprise, as they were in Liverpool.
Groups such as These Walls Must Fall and Solidarity Knows No Borders are appealing widely for support from trades unions and activist groups, right across the left and are getting it. They will be organising solidarity events and vigils as well as working directly with refugees and asylum seekers.
They say that,
“This new immigration bill is a new attempt to stir up the ‘Hostile Environment’ for the undocumented migrants and people seeking asylum, to turn people against people to cause more division.”
Indeed, the bill carries an extreme element of xenophobia within it. The claim that the UK is “swamped” by refugees and asylum seekers is simply unfounded. For example, Germany processes four times as many asylum and refugee applications than the UK. There is an issue of the safe travel to the UK of refugees and asylum seekers, but this is being made worse by the government’s previous asylum bill (The Nationality and Borders Act) and will not be solved by this new one. Indeed, the PCS (Public Services Union), which opposes the bill and has challenged it as illegal in the courts, has worked with Care 4 Calais for several months, to produce a set of proposals that would make for safe passage to the UK. The government of course is not interested in listening to the experts on the ground and prefers to hear the rhetoric of bigots from its back benches.
When one studies the bill, it is really quite illuminating that a government bill should contain details around human rights that are so draconian. I quote the bill at length in the next paragraph because of the chilling nature of its intent.
“The Bill creates a system in which anyone arriving illegally in the United Kingdom will not have their asylum claim, human rights claim or modern slavery referral considered while they are in the UK, but they will instead be promptly removed either to their home country or relocated to a safe third country to have their protection claims processed there. The only way in which illegal entrants will be able to stay in the UK, and then only on a temporary basis, is if they can provide credible and compelling evidence that they face a real risk of serious and irreversible harm (for example persecution, torture or death) in the specific third country to where they are due to be removed.”
This bill therefore tries to frighten asylum seekers away from travelling to the UK and will push the criminal element still further in its exploitation of this vulnerable group. It also pre-supposes that because an individual has travelled through a “safe” country, they should stay there. This places the onus on other European countries to deal with the problem and washes the British governments’ hands of it – with the UK taking only a minimal role in alleviating a situation, largely created via its own imperialist foreign policy.
As, These Walls Must Fall points out,
“The bill proposes to create a two-tier system, where those who arrive in the UK legally are given preferential treatment over those who do not, where the UK government has already made it almost impossible to arrive here legally. It also proposes to detain many more migrants and people seeking asylum, including children. This is not only unfair, but it is also counterproductive. The vast majority of undocumented migrants in the UK are already living and working here and being part of our community. Punishing them for their status will only serve to create further division and resentment within our society. They will also become even more exposed to exploitation and abuse.”
Indeed, recently more than 60 NGOs, MPs and academics have written to Rishi Sunak urging him to withdraw the UK’s Illegal Immigration Bill, warning that it will “drive modern slavery and cost lives.”
Uniting to fight racism
These pleas will fall on deaf ears in the Conservative Party, but the voice of the people will be heard. The PCS has shown heroic opposition to the bill and its members are determined to oppose it. Activist groups and campaigners are uniting together to oppose the bill and to stand up to the far-right where-ever it rears its ugly head. The Left needs to build support for these movements but also to link them to the movements of opposition to a government intent on using the excuse of the war in Ukraine and Covid to attack human rights and living standards. Trades unionists have fought racism and discrimination for decades. Left groups and fringe parties have done the same.
A racist message is coming from the state and the Labour Party is not being clear in its opposition to this message. This does produce a potentially volatile and negative outlook for migrants in general. That is why groups such as Enough is Enough, Trades Councils and Trades Unions need to link with activists groups that support refugees and asylum seekers. The British people are in general not racist. Most British people have a sympathetic attitude to people fleeing persecution. However, the British state is now flagrantly showing its institutional racism. There is therefore a concern that this could affect wider consciousness in a negative sense. Those opposed to the racism, the over-whelming majority, need to rally round our refugees and asylum seekers and fight to maintain our tradition of tolerance and compassion toward the persecuted.