Immigration – what’s the problem?

Home Secretary Jack Straw’s response to the rise in asylum seekers in Britain has been to clamp down on so-called ‘fake immigrants.’ He suggests that “access to social security cash benefits in Britain acts as an incentive for many seeking a better life.”NAOMI BYRON unravels some immigration myths and offers a socialist solution.

ALMOST A quarter of the world’s population – 1.3 billion – live on $1 a day, while the world’s 200 richest people have doubled their wealth in the last four years to more than $1,000 billion.

The richest fifth of the world’s population consume 86% of the world’s wealth, while the bottom fifth account for only 1%.

THE NUMBER of refugees applying for asylum in Britain increased by 55% from 1998 (46,015) to 1999 (71,160) according to the latest government figures. This was mainly because of people fleeing the Kosova war.

The press and politicians say Britain can’t afford to open the door to increasing numbers of refugees. In Dover the government, the Labour council and the local paper caused tension between asylum-seekers and local residents by blaming “bogus” refugees for housing shortages and cuts in local services.

But refugees are not to blame for these cuts. When the government cuts money going to support refugees, it is never put into other public services. Rather, these cuts are used to open the way for cutbacks in government spending for the rest of us.

When the Tories were planning to introduce the Job Seekers’ Allowance (JSA) to slash benefits spending and force the unemployed into low-paid jobs, they cut benefits for asylum-seekers first. When they got away with that, in came the JSA.

Britain has plenty of wealth which could improve living standards and provide quality local services like health, education and housing. The New Labour government have given away over £14 billion a year in tax cuts to big business, while the number of people living in poverty in Britain has increased over the last three years.

Talk of ‘bogus’ refugees who think Britain is a ‘soft touch’ by politicians and the newspapers is calculated to provide a scapegoat for the failure of the government to tackle poverty and inequality.

The truth is that most refugees who flee to Britain haven’t got a clue about the asylum regime that exists here – they’re just desperate to find somewhere safe to stay. The number of applications for asylum goes up or down according to the level of conflict and crisis in the world. (see box)

The instability and crisis that grips much of the world is being made worse by the imperialist policies of the British government and others. They enforce big business interests against the majority of the world’s population – including most of Britain’s.

During 1994-95, while 10,165 refugees fled to Britain from the military dictatorship in Nigeria, British businesses had a trade surplus of £333 million with Nigeria. Profits in Nigeria for multinational companies like Shell increased by 75%. Britain’s government continued to sell arms to the Nigerian government (despite an international arms embargo) and Shell continued to finance almost half the military dictatorship’s expenditure – both put profits above human rights.

Why do refugees leave their country?

REFUGEES ARE forced out of their homes by war, persecution, repression and environmental disasters. Most want to return home eventually but often this is too dangerous.

· 80% of the world’s refugees are women and children.

· More than one in four asylum-seekers in Britain are under 24.

The government is trying to restrict the number of refugees allowed to settle in Britain, claiming that they are a burden the country cannot afford. Yet the British government is supporting the same repressive regimes and disastrous policies around the world that creates refugees.

In 1999, 25 million refugees were forced to flee environmental disasters – drought, floods, deforestation and degraded land. For the first time ever environmental refugees outnumbered those from war zones. This is a measure of how much destruction capitalist multinationals and governments are causing our planet.

Many refugees are highly educated and skilled, yet because of racist immigration laws thousands of them are not allowed to contribute their skills to Britain. Despite a shortage of doctors in the health service, many refugees who trained as doctors abroad are forced to live on benefits if they cannot afford the £415 exam to check whether their qualifications are compatible with Britain’s.

Economies need Immigration

IRONICALLY SOME commentators are pointing with concern to ageing populations and low birthrates in many European countries. The United Nations estimates that to prevent the workforce becoming “severely restricted”, Britain needs to attract more than 100,000 immigrant workers per year for the next 50 years.

Immigrant workers do tend to be younger than the existing population and play an important role in the economy.

Mass migrations were essential to develop all the major economic powers. In 1845 Frederick Engels wrote “the rapid expansion of English industry could not have taken place if England had not had in the large and poor population of Ireland a reserve army [of labour] of which to avail itself”. In 1851 there were 700,000 Irish migrant workers in England.

The USA became the most powerful capitalist country in the world for most of the 20th century as a result of immigrant labour. Millions of West African slaves were taken to America by force. Between 1820 and 1914, 25.5 million Europeans emigrated to the USA.

As the working class organised against the bosses’ exploitation and technology increased our ability to move around the world, governments introduced the first laws regulating immigration.

Their aim was to ensure they would always have a supply of cheap labour by restricting the rights of immigrants, at the same time whipping up racist ideas to divide working-class people.

Spotlight on Dover

“DOVER SUFFERED under the Tory government’s cuts in jobs. The pits were closed, small industrial and engineering companies were closed – there are loads of service industries in Dover but no real secure work.

As a result there’s problems with housing, education – classes are overcrowded – and into a situation like this you have refugees, fleeing from wars and persecution in their countries. People complained about the extra children in the classes, they complained that the refugees were getting houses which should go to local people and getting more benefits, and that just wasn’t true.

There’s over 300 people in Shepway who need houses but there are thousands of houses which remain empty. Why aren’t they being used?

Now that some of the refugees have gone [some back home and some moved to other areas by the government] you still have these problems in education, housing, etc.

There needs to be massive investment in Dover in jobs, in education and in houses. Those are the sort of issues that Dover people should be fighting the government and the council about.”

Robbie Segal, a Dover Socialist Party member

Does immigration cause unemployment?

THIS IS a myth. Unemployment is caused by economic problems, not by immigration. Britain had mass unemployment in the 1930s when there was virtually no immigration, yet there was almost full employment in the 1950s-60s when immigration was much higher.

Unemployment provides a pool of cheap labour for capitalism to exploit. It is also used as a weapon to increase exploitation of those in work. The argument goes that ‘there’s plenty of people on the dole who’d take this job if you don’t want it’, backed up by government schemes to cut benefits and force the unemployed into low-paid, casual jobs.

Immigration laws are used to reduce the rights of migrant workers, not to protect the rights of local workers. This discrimination helps the bosses force down conditions for the rest of us, as does mass unemployment.

What’s the Solution?

WE NEED to rebuild and strengthen the trade union movement and workers’ organisations, opposing the exploitation and lies spread by the bosses.

Increased opportunities for travelling, especially with growing instability worldwide, means working-class people must link up their struggles from country to country as never before. Battles for equal rights and conditions, no matter what country workers are based in, will have to be fought.

Ultimately, we need to change the way society is run. The mass migrations forced by wars, environmental disasters and poverty are a symptom of the inability of capitalism to provide the basic needs of most people in the world.

We support the struggles of workers and all oppressed people to overthrow the regimes and multinational corporations which uphold the current capitalist system. We argue for society to be organised along socialist principles, where the needs of society can be planned with democratic discussion and debate and exploitation no longer exists. This can be achieved through working-class control and management of society’s resources.

A democratically controlled socialist plan of production would then free the resources to eradicate poverty and preventable diseases, enabling people to move around the world through choice, not because circumstances force them to.