By Joan Trevor
Migrants are welcome in Britain - so long as they can plug gaps in the labour force, says Tony Blair.
His 27 April speech on 'The positive case for controlled migration' was delivered, aptly, at a conference of the bosses' organisation, the Confederation of British Industry. They are, after all, the ones who want select groups of workers to come and make them rich.
If the title of the speech looked like an antidote to Home Secretary David Blunkett's racist attacks on asylum seekers, the text said otherwise:
"We will neither be Fortress Britain, nor will we be an open house. Where necessary, we will tighten the immigration system. Where there are abuses we will deal with them, so that public support for the controlled migration that benefits Britain is maintained."
If this is Blair's strategy, he should have reined in Blunkett sooner. Support for any sort of migration has been undermined for years now by the New Labour government, being tough and appearing to be tough on 'bogus' asylum seekers, and pandering to press racism.
Thanks to the anti-asylum rhetoric it is now pretty much OK to hate in Britain, so long as the targets are people with brown skin or an East European accent.
Blair's speech blurred the issues of asylum, any future migration, and the status of black people already resident in the UK. "A recent MORI poll found that people estimated the proportion of ethnic minorities in Britain as 23% when the real figure is a third of that at 8%", he told us.
Instead of reassuring 'people' "there aren't that many of them, really", a real anti-racist would be insisting that people's 'ethnicity' doesn't matter a fig.
Blair may not be as hate-filled a racist as Blunkett, but he presides over a racist state, introduces racist legislation, and holds quaint, avuncular views about 'races'. "The vast bulk of the British people are not racist. It is in their nature to be moderate," he says.
The timing of this speech and its content is mainly about persuading people not to vote BNP in the coming elections, in my estimation. That's more because he wants votes for Labour than because he worries about the BNP growing. New Labour is not as kind to brown-skinned folk as Blair likes to paint it, not kind at all.
This is the government that locks up children while their parents' asylum applications are processed. The number of children in Dungavel and Oakington detention centres rose from 10 at the end of 2003 to 24 in April.
This is the government that would casually have flung 2,871 asylum seekers in accommodation provided through the National Asylum Support Service onto the streets on 1 May, because they came originally from countries acceding to the EU. In the main, these are people fleeing anti-Roma persecution. What happens to these people will be determined by a judicial review: the people affected had to take the government to court to be treated humanely.
Most of Blair's speech consisted of patting resident immigrant communities on the head for their past contribution to British society and economy, and breaking it gently to the rest - the anxious "bulk of the British people", the innately decent whities nonetheless 'naturally' given to racist misgivings - that the bosses need some East Europeans to come and till the soil and build office blocks. And, in an astonishing admission of failure, that damns his government in ways he clearly cannot even see, he also says: "a quarter of all health professionals are overseas born. Or consider the 11,000 overseas teachers now working in schools in England. Or the 23% of staff in our HE institutions [who] are non-UK nationals... Our public services would be close to collapse without their contribution."
What is the situation regarding migration within the EU?
While EU citizens can move freely about the EU, the right to reside and access to benefits will be restricted for seven years for people coming to the original 15 EU states from the 10 accession countries. To stay, they will be required to register as workers and work continuously, or have independent means.
Regarding controlled non-EU migration, Blair intends to continue plugging skills gaps in public services with workers recruited from many lands, although he will reduce the numbers of people allowed in from non-EU countries to do non-skilled jobs.
His government will continue to show no mercy to those fleeing persecution who cannot jump through the several burning hoops the immigration service sets for them.
The latest batch of legislation currently going through parliament, the Asylum & Immigration Bill, was controversial, among other things, for proposing to end asylum-seekers' right to legal appeal against a rejection of their claim. After criticism the government promised "amendments to replace the judicial review ouster with a new system allowing oversight by the administrative court in those decisions". This phrase suggested a climbdown, but Blair's speech says not: "We will continue to tackle abuses in the asylum system, including through the legislation currently before Parliament which will establish a single tier of appeal".
To sum up, Blair's strategy on asylum is pick-and-mix to suit the needs of British business. Plugging gaps in the labour force must be made palatable to a population whipped up against the dark-skinned scapegoats for all that is rotten in our society. What is most rotten in our society is demonstrated in its treatment of asylum seekers.