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Asylum and immigration - what we're thinking
THE CURRENT 'debate' on asylum and immigration makes it hard to separate fact from fiction.
Naomi Byron looks at some of the concerns that are widespread, and argues for a socialist approach.
Some people say: "There are too many asylum seekers - we need stricter controls."
Repressive regimes, war and conflict, economic crises and environmental disasters are the conditions that create refugees internationally. We are now living in an increasingly unstable and violent world, and this has led to growing numbers of people leaving their homes to try and escape terrible conditions.
Those conditions are the consequences of the capitalist system which is based on exploitation, competition and the pursuit of profit; a system which New Labour and the other main political parties represent. It is this system that condemns 1.2 billion people to live on less than $1 a day, and that means that the richest 200 companies have combined sales worth more than the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of all but ten nations in the world. Globally, $1 trillion a year is wasted on military spending.
It is a system of economic crises, increasingly leading to whole states 'failing'. As long as we live under capitalism it is inevitable that people will try to escape persecution, repression and disaster in their home country by seeking asylum abroad. Others will travel the world as economic migrants - hoping to escape grinding poverty.
Last year the biggest groups of people who claimed asylum in Britain came from Iran, Somalia, China, Zimbabwe and Iraq - all countries with dictatorships, major human rights abuses or war.
The story of Mansoor Hassan (see page 12) is just a small glimpse of the terrible conditions which refugees are fleeing. The Home Office alone decides whether to give asylum seekers refuge or not. If the Home Office refuses there are very few rights to appeal.
Despite all the claims by the government and the media that many asylum claims are 'bogus', many genuine claims from refugees are still turned down. Right First Time?, a report by the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, shows how Home Office caseworkers have routinely refused asylum to refugees who have suffered torture, dismissing expert medical evidence that supports their testimony.
Harsher laws will not prevent people trying to enter this country. They will just push more refugees into the hands of the people-traffickers, forcing them to break the law and risk their lives in more dangerous forms of transport.
Refugees should have the right to enter Britain by legal routes. Once here, their application should be dealt with promptly so that they do not have to put up with huge delays. Removing asylum seekers' right to work while their claims are being decided has forced people onto benefits (at lower levels than UK citizens) to survive. While applications are being processed, asylum seekers should be able to work with the same employment rights as other workers, and not used as cheap labour for unscrupulous bosses.
Asylum seekers who have their cases turned down should have a genuine right to appeal, not to the Home Office or an unelected judge, but to committees made up of representatives from the trade unions, refugee organisations and community groups.
Some people say: "But our public services can't cope with so many asylum seekers and immigrants."
After eighteen years of Tory cuts, followed by more of the same from New Labour, there is a real problem with under-funding of public services. But Britain is a rich country. Since Tony Blair came to power the wealth of the top 1% has doubled from £355 billion to £797 billion - more than the government spends in five years on education, the NHS and housing combined! During the same period the poorest 50% of the population have seen their share of the national wealth drop from 7% to 5%.
When the government is determined to find the money for something, it can: just look at the £5 billion they have spent so far on invading and occupying Iraq. However, New Labour has followed a relentless policy of increasing the profits of big business at the expense of working people.
This has meant endless privatisation and cuts in public services. As a result, even small increases in the number of people needing to use over-stretched services in an area can create enormous pressure. But demonising asylum seekers and immigrants is not a solution.
If the government could expel all asylum-seekers from the country tomorrow, does anyone really believe that they would put the money saved from the asylum system back into public services for the rest of the population? Of course not.
The government is only prepared to spend money where it suits their priorities - handing over profits to the private companies who are getting fat at our expense. We need united community campaigns for better services for all, including extra resources to cope with changes in population.
If all the immigrants in Britain stopped working tomorrow, most public services - like the health service, transport and schools - would collapse. 31% of doctors and 13% of nurses were born outside the UK. Last year two thirds of newly-registered doctors, and more than 40% of nurses, came from abroad. 11,000 of the teachers working in schools in England were born overseas.
In 1998/9 immigrants as a whole paid £2.6 billion more in tax than all the public spending on immigrants, including asylum-seekers, put together.
Some people say: "Many immigrants are prepared to work harder, for less money - our jobs are under threat."
Cheap labour is one of the major reasons why big business and the government are keen to encourage immigration. 80% of the registered immigrant workers from new EU countries working in the UK last year were earning only between £4.50 and £5.99 an hour.
British big business is keen to attract migrant labour, supposedly to fill 'skill gaps' in the economy. However, these skills shortages are often a result of a failure to invest in long-term training and education in Britain, or wages and conditions that are so bad that many workers are not prepared to put up with them.
How can workers in Britain make sure that wage rates and conditions are not driven down by cheap labour brought in from abroad? Some argue for increasing restrictions on migrants' right to work and claim benefits. But this only gives the bosses even more power to exploit cheap migrant labour. If you have no safety net or legal protection you will be more desperate and prepared to work for less - like the Chinese migrants who died in Morecambe Bay, working for £1 per day.
Many more migrants will be forced into the illegal economy where they have no rights at all and the threat of calling immigration is often all the boss needs to put an end to any talk of rights at work.
The best protection for workers in Britain is to fight for migrant workers to have the same rights as the existing workforce, so that migrants can't be used to force down wages or conditions. This is what the trade unions did, eventually, in response to immigration to Britain during the 50s, 60s and 70s - it is desperately needed again today.
Just as we can't trust the bosses with our public services, we can't trust them to decide who can and can't move around the world or have the right to work in order to boost their profits. We need democratic working-class ownership and control of the economy and resources so that we can plan to meet the needs of the whole of society and not just a privileged rich elite.
The wars, persecution and poverty that refugees and migrants are trying to escape are part of the same profit system that exploit us in Britain - the system that New Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats all support.
The potential exists to abolish poverty and provide education, health care and jobs for the world's population, without any reduction in living standards for any but the wealthy few who run society today. But it is only by ending the profits system that all of our needs be met. That is what the Socialist Party is fighting for here and internationally.
In The Socialist 2 April 2005: