As we go to press on 17 March, up to 300 detainees at the Harmondsworth immigrant removal centre near London are reported on hunger strike.
And detainees at up to seven other centres, out of Britain’s eleven holding about 3,000 people at any one time, have joined the protest for shorter or longer spans of time.
Because of the conditions in the centres, it is hard to know exactly what the detainees’ demands are, but reports include calls for:
•cancellation of a deportation flight to Pakistan
•a 28-day limit on detention
•immediate release of disabled, elderly, pregnant, or mentally unwell detainees, and those who are victims of torture and trafficking
•an end to the “Detained Fast Track” system, under which asylum-seekers are rushed into deportation
•better conditions within the centres, where detainees say they are sometimes locked in their rooms for 12 hours a day without ventilation.
Just a few days before, on 3 March, a Parliamentary Committee report had stated:
“There should be a time limit of 28 days on the length of time anyone can be held in immigration detention.
“Decisions to detain should be very rare and detention should be for the shortest possible time and only to effect removal.”
It also called for detention, when used, to be in livable rather than the prison-like conditions currently used. It condemned the “Detained Fast Track” and recommended that women who are victims of rape and sexual violence, and pregnant women should not be detained.
The report was from the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on refugees and on migration, which are voluntary groups of MPs with no official status. Nevertheless, it was one of the weightiest mainstream, high-profile calls for migrant rights for a while. It was the first ever parliamentary report on the detention system.
As the detainees and the MPs spoke out, much more media-covered voices spoke from the other side.
In a TV interview to be screened on 19 March, but trailed a week in advance, Ukip leader Nigel Farage declared:
“If an employer wishes to choose — or you can use the word ‘discriminate’ if you want to — but wishes to choose to employ a British-born person, they should be allowed to do so”.
The interviewer asked: “In Ukip land there would be no law against discrimination on the grounds of nationality. Would there be a law against discrimination on the grounds of race or colour?”
Farage replied: “No”. He has since claimed that he didn’t speak about race, but his reply was no, Ukip would have no law against racial discrimination.
On 16 March, speaking to the Guardian, Farage defended a Ukip policy demanding that immigrants pay privately for health care and to school their children for five years after arriving.
“Immigrants must financially support themselves and their dependants for five years. This means private health insurance (except emergency medical care), education and housing — they should pay into the pot before they take out of it”.
Labour leader Ed Miliband and Tory leader David Cameron both denounced Farage. But the evidence from their policies is that Cameron and even Miliband like to have Farage as an outlier so that they can present their own anti-migrant policies as moderate and middle of the road.
In the 2010 election the Tories campaigned on a promise to cut net immigration to 100,000 a year. It was obvious at the time that this was impossible without taking Britain out of the European Union, and erecting walls against migrants which even the European states outside the EU, like Norway and Switzerland, do not have.
The promise has led to much baiting of migrants, and informed the Tories’ nasty 2014 Immigration Act, but not reduced net migration.
The net flow of migrants to the UK in the 12 months to September 2014 was 298,000, higher than it was in the years before 2010.
The Immigration Act 2014 increases surveillance and reduces migrants’ rights.
It compels landlords to check tenants’ immigration status. It tightens compulsion on employers to check immigration status. It compels banks to check the immigration status of people opening bank accounts.
It empowers the government to impose charges for health care on people in Britain seeking leave to enter.
It removes migrants’ right to appeal in many cases and replaces it by administrative review.
Instead of clearly denouncing the basis of the Tories’ promise — the false idea that Britain somehow has “too much” immigration — Labour leaders have resorted to cheap shots against the Tories’ incompetence and calls for strengthened border controls.
Labour’s five-point pledge card for the 7 May election, launched on 14 March, makes “Control Immigration” one of its five points, and on the flipside says: “People who come here won’t be able to claim benefits for at least two years and we will introduce fair rules making it illegal for employers to undercut wages by exploiting workers”.
Really to limit exploitation, the obvious rules would be: a minimum wage raised to the level of the living wage, without loopholes; a ban on zero-hours contracts; and rights for unions to get into workplaces and force bosses to recognise them. But Labour’s leaders present limits on exploitation as a “control immigration” issue.
The truth of the matter is that migrants are a boon for Britain. Educated young adults, keen to work, who have cost the British state nothing for upbringing and education, are a bonus for their new country. Those who need training here can be quickly trained. Detailed surveys suggest that the net effect of more immigration is to raise living standards in the country they come to, not to depress them.
Immigrants from other cultures deepen and enrich the British society to which they come. Britain is a vastly better place as a result of the immigrants who have come here in the past.
For every working-class activist, the priority must to be unite workers, British-born and migrant, white and black, atheist and of all religions, for our common interests against the exploiters, who themselves respect no borders as they shift investment and production across the world.
In the run-up to 7 May, Solidarity will support the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory in its effort to create a voice for migrant rights and open borders within the campaign by the unions and Labour to oust the Tories.