As soon as the financial crisis broke last year, up popped Immigration Minister Phil Woolas to tell us that it was time to start cracking down on immigration. Woolas is a man who is able to turn every issue, no matter how unrelated, into one about migrants. He was quoted in November as justifying the Afghan occupation because it kept immigration down. Perhaps he spends all day mumbling about foreigners making his Coco Pops soggy, his shoes too tight and the clouds too dark, but he only comes to public attention when his ramblings coincide with something that also happens to be in the news. Mind you, even Woolas hasn't gone as far as his Italian counterpart, who suggested last week that foods like kebabs be banned. If he threatened one of the nation's national dishes, that really would spark riots, so perhaps Woolas is not as far gone as I thought. Give him time. Sadly Woolas is just the most obnoxious example of a far more widespread tendency to regard immigration as a problem that has to be handled, rather than a freedom where every citizen of the world should have the right to come and go as they please.
Even Gordon Brown is toughening his rhetoric in response to the ever more shrill voices in the Daily Mail et al denouncing Britain's "open-door immigration policy," despite the fact that we've had no such thing in living memory. On Thursday Brown announced a new phase in policy with a keynote speech and draft immigration legislation. He said he wanted to introduce restrictions for migrant workers in accessing skilled jobs - this despite the fact that we have a massive undersupply in the skilled workforce of nurses and plumbers, for example. He also declared his intention to make life even more difficult for asylum-seekers and refugees.
The Refugee Council's head of policy Jonathan Ellis responded by saying the government has proposed "making refugees homeless and destitute. That was ruled illegal by the courts four years ago." Not only that, the government proposes that families who are unable to return home will be refused cash support and forced to rely on a payment card. This makes a mockery of the government's claim to be safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children seeking asylum."
This government's treatment of asylum-seekers is a sickening disgrace. We force people to live in poverty then despise them for their terrible conditions. We lock up refugees and their children and then treat them like the criminals that we have made them resemble. We should not prevent people from being treated as full citizens and then use their low status and poverty as evidence that they are less than us. Nobody is a non-person just because they were born in a different place. One argument that has gained political currency is that the mainstream parties need to start addressing the immigration "problem" because of the threat of the British National Party. But there is something fundamentally corrupting about the idea that in order to combat fascists you have to co-opt their most poisonous ideas. The idea that the BNP can be countered by legitimising its core policies is just plain wrong. We need to counter its ideas, advancing arguments about why immigration is not the problem.
Who is it that denies white working-class people council homes? Who lays them off when recession comes around? Who decides the levels of poverty pay that so many still exist on? None of these issues is caused by immigration, yet it's immigrants that so often get the blame. There are specific issues, such as the use of immigrant and other vulnerable labour to undercut wages - but our answer has to be organising these workers in effective trade unions, not backing the state's right to keep those workers out. Immigration controls actually help to entrench employers' ability to play one set of workers off against another. While migrants are more vulnerable it undermines their confidence to build or get involved in the fight for decent wages. Where workers have come together, immigrants have played an invaluable leading role in trade union struggles. It's the employers who are determined to avoid paying a decent living wage that are the problem, not those poor enough to be willing to be underpaid for the work they do. What side of a line on a map you're from is not important.
But the free market has always meant free movement for capital but not for labour. The cards are habitually stacked against us when we allow artificial divisions like the colour of our passports to have real meaning. Late last year asylum-seeker Rose-Jane Wanjohi and her British-born daughter Natale were saved from deportation by fellow passengers on the flight they had been due to be taken away on. A number of the passengers refused to allow the plane to take off and be a party to an injustice. For them it was a small act, but for Wanjohi, who was returned to the relative safety of a detention centre, it meant everything. It is not true to say that the majority of people are racist or that most of us are directly complicit in the atrocious way that refugees are treated in this country. But it is true that racist ideas have been allowed to seep into every aspect of our society and that even good people can sometimes be drawn into the idea that immigrants are a problem.
When government ministers, of all people, give credence to these ideas, particularly in an atmosphere when mainstream politicians are utterly despised by a large proportion of the population, it does not act as a bulwark against racism but shifts the consensus towards those who would divide us. The BNP as an organisation is not staffed by tactical geniuses or electoral experts - it draws its vote from a pre-existing well of bigotry. It is those ideas that we have to address not just because we want to combat the far-right but because it is capitalism that is the root of our problems not immigration.
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.