Scapegoating refugees: Labour's new racism

Submitted by AWL on 23 March, 2006 - 4:16

Anti-asylum bigotry is now the main cutting edge of British racism.

The myth of masses of “bogus" asylum seekers descending on “soft touch" Britain and “pushing their way to the front of the queue, to get preferential treatment", has been peddled by every tabloid, and every pub bigot.

The main perpetrators — the people who make this racism seem reasonable and respectable — are the leaders of the mainstream political parties. New Labour and the Tory Party have attempted to out-do each other in a battle to devise ever more draconian policy proposals, and ever more vicious targeting of some of the most vulnerable people in Britain.

Stan Crooke looks at New Labour’s record.

In the early hours of 5 August 2001 Firsat Yildiz, a 22 year-old Kurdish asylum-seeker, was stabbed to death in the Sighthill housing scheme in Glasgow. Two days, later another asylum-seeker was stabbed in one of the high-rise flats on the scheme.

These were no isolated incidents. Over the preceding 14 months, 70 attacks on asylum-seekers living in Sighthill had been reported to the police. But this figure represents only the tip of the iceberg. A doctor in the local health centre reported that almost every day he had to treat asylum-seekers who had been attacked on the street.

Politicians, the media and the police were quick to condemn such instances of street-level violence. Such condemnations were in contrast to their silence about the more pervasive, legalised violence inflicted on asylum-seekers by successive governments — Tory and Labour alike.

Around 1,700 asylum-seekers are held in prisons or detention centres at any one time. Most of them are held in prisons — where they can be locked up for up to 23 hours a day — rather than detention centres. Those detained include refugees who have been victims of torture and imprisonment in their own country. New Labour plans to create a further 1,800 places for the detention of asylum-seekers.

In 1998 the United Nations Commission on Human Rights visited the UK to inspect detention conditions for asylum-seekers. Its report raised eight matters of concern and made 15 recommendations. Five of the matters of concern and 12 of the recommendations continue to be completely ignored by the UK authorities. The rest have been only partly addressed.

Most asylum-seekers, it is true, are not detained. While awaiting the outcome of their asylum application most asylum seekers are “supported” by the National Asylum Support Service (NASS). But this is little better than a system of open detention.

Asylum-seekers are given one no-choice “offer” of accommodation, usually on a run-down isolated housing scheme. The Sighthill scheme in Glasgow — suffering from high unemployment, widespread drug abuse, poor housing conditions and basic grinding poverty — is a typical example.

People on that estate complained — truthfully or not — about asylum seekers getting fridges, cookers and washing machines. The reason why they complain is clear. It is because they either do not themselves have these very basic things or what they do have is worn out. Replacements cannot be afforded.

It is crime that people do not have such things! It is tragically foolish that they blame people even worse off than they themselves are.

Equally poor was the accommodation provided in Liverpool by Landmark, a private company contracted to provide accommodation for NASS. One asylum-seeker housed in Liverpool recently won a court case that his rights under Article 3 of the European Human Rights Convention (the right not to suffer inhuman or degrading treatment) had been breached by the poor quality of the NASS accommodation.

Until April of last year asylum-seekers received financial support from the Benefits Agency or their local Social Services Department. Asylum-seekers who have arrived in the UK since then receive vouchers. The total value of the vouchers is just 70% of Income Support rates.

Only one of the vouchers, worth £10, can be exchanged for cash. The rest must be exchanged directly for purchases in shops. The Government has stipulated that no change may be given if the value of the purchases is less than the value of the vouchers offered.

The vouchers are issued to the asylum-seeker only as long as they remain in the NASS accommodation with which they have been provided. Thus, the vouchers not only condemn asylum-seekers to poverty. They also confine them to their allocated NASS address.

The NASS system is about punishment, not cost-cutting. It is more expensive to administer than state welfare payments or Social Work payments. Absurdly, the costs of the NASS administration last year (£6.1 million) were greater than the value of the NASS vouchers issued (£5.1 million).

Government procedures for dealing with asylum claims are designed to undermine the asylum-seeker’s chances of succeeding. Applicants are allowed only 10 working days to complete — in English — a lengthy questionnaire about their claim. At short notice, applicants are instructed to attend a Home Office interview — sometimes hundreds of miles away from their NASS accommodation — about their asylum claim.

Failure to return a questionnaire in time or failure to attend an interview results in rejection of the claim for “non-compliance". In the past 12 months the number of non-compliance refusals has jumped from nine per cent to 27% of all rejections.

Asylum-seekers whose claims are considered to be “manifestly unfounded" simply on the basis of the applicant’s nationality are sent to Oakington Detention Centre in Cambridge. Countries on the Oakington list, where there is supposedly no real risk of persecution, include Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, China, Zimbabwe and Iraqi Kurdistan — all of which have appalling human rights records.

Given that such claims are assumed to be “manifestly unfounded" even before they have been explained, their rejection is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Of the 6,812 claims dealt with at Oakington to date, just 33 were granted refugee status.

After exhaustion of their rights of appeal — savagely reduced by legislation passed in 1999 — asylum-seekers are in line for deportation. Dissatisfied with what they regard as the Tories’ inadequate performance in kicking out asylum-seekers, New Labour has promised that it will deport 30,000 rejected asylum-seekers this year.

This systematic and escalating attack on asylum-seekers — the increased used of detention, the allocation of inadequate housing, the infliction of a sub-poverty-level standard of living, the knee-jerk rejection of asylum applications, reduced rights of appeal, and mass deportations – has been accompanied by ever more hysterical denunciations of refugees.

“Asylum-seeker" has been made synonymous with “scrounger" by the press. In boasting of its commitment to produce a fall in the number of new asylum claims New Labour has identified asylum-seekers as a problem to be contained. The Tories have talked of the country being “flooded" by asylum-seekers. The fascist British National Party has jumped on the bandwagon, by denouncing asylum-seekers as a threat to the British way of life.

Such denunciations of asylum-seekers by politicians and the media have rightly been condemned by TGWU union leader Bill Morris for “giving life to racists". And it is asylum-seekers who are paying the price — some with their lives — for the politicians’ anti-refugee demagogy.

Racist attacks on asylum-seekers can never be excused. When Glasgow City Council proposed evicting a tenant for racially harassing asylum-seekers, it was a serious mistake for Scottish Socialist Party MSP Tommy Sheridan to promise barricades to prevent the eviction, and for the Socialist Workers Party to circulate an Open Letter in opposition to the eviction.

But, at the same time, the real culprits — those who have whipped up an atmosphere of hatred towards asylum-seekers and thereby legitimised violence against them — should be exposed and challenged.

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