A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Home truths about immigration

The havoc created by the recent storm of racial tension has been loosed by the same pack of dogs who unleashed war abroad and the shredding of civil liberties at home. Thirteen years of new Labour rule has left social democracy in this country so enfeebled that, when Michael Howard - who can't see a belt without wanting to hit below it - predictably scraped the barrel on immigration and asylum, all that the Blairites could field as a defence was that his goals were impossible within the budget constraints that he'd set himself. New Labour could scarcely start arguing against Howard's central argument - that immigrants and minorities were a "problem" or even a "crisis" - because they, themselves, have embraced this thesis from the "new dawn" of May 1 1997. David Blunkett himself had used the Thatcher S-word - "swamped" - when talking about the "problem" of asylum family children in schools, had said that immigrants should use English, even in their own kitchens, lest they become "schizophrenic," had locked up asylum-seekers behind barbed wire guarded by savage dogs, invented new tests of "citizenship," piloted ID cards and driven through rafts of "anti-terrorism" legislation, leading to Britian's Guantanamo at Belmarsh.

It was he, the new Labour Home Secretary, who threatened to take asylum-seekers' children hostage, to be exchanged at the foot of the aircraft steps for their parents' agreement to be deported. It was Blairite Foreign Minister Denis MacShane, who said that British Muslims would "have to choose ... between the 'British way' of non-violence and peaceful dialogue ... and terrorism." If you don't run, of course, they can't chase you. But new Labour has been on the run on these issues from the start. And the dogs of racism and war are fast catching them up. A principled stand on issues of race, asylum, immigration and nationality would have looked like this. Every country must have control of its borders - no-one serious is advocating the scrapping of immigration controls. In any case, there is nothing "left-wing" about urging all the most accomplished and determined people to leave the poor countries of the world and come to the richest - this would make the poor countries poorer and the rich countries richer. But immigration controls must be colour-blind or else they are racist. A system which welcomes rich US citizens and blonde blue-eyed Australians but brands those who look different from the majority as a "problem" consisting of people who must continuously "prove themselves" to the satisfaction of rabid - foreign-owned - tabloids feeds the insatiable apetites of the racists.

Second, the case would be made that, if immigration were a bad thing, then the US would be the poorest country in the world and India would be the richest. We are a country which sent its people to the far corners of the earth not only to live in but colonise countries, whole continents even, over at least two centuries. Immigrants usually work harder than host communities and have an above average track record of creating net economic benefits in the countries that they move to. Whole sectors of the British economy would collapse or be seriously undermined without the presence of immigrants. Agriculture, catering, hospitality, the health service, public transport, retailing - even the priesthood - would have critical labour shortages without the contribution of immigrants. Over the last six decades the average British family size has declined from 2.4 children to 1.1 children - and that figure is inflated by the above average family size among immigrants. At this rate, Britain faces a demographic timebomb, with an elderly population creakily supported by declining numbers of wealth creators. In short, Britain needs new people and, short of an explosion of the birth rate, the only way to get them is to encourage new immigrants.

Our culinary, cultural, economic, sartorial, educational and social lives would be incomparably poorer, more bland, and less exciting without the presence of those immigrant communities already here, as anyone who lived in 1950s Britain could testify. They are not a "problem" to be solved, but a great asset whom we should celebrate. We must strangle the false dichotomy between asylum-seekers and economic migrants. Most people who come here do so for a mixture of reasons. Did the large number of people fleeing the imperialist attacks on Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq come here for political or economic reasons? Both, in most cases, just like my grandparents, who arrived barefoot in cattle boats from Ireland - and were greeted with the same kind of racist sectarian hatred as many of today's arrivals. My great grandmother must have been one of the few people in the 19th century to emigrate from the US to Scotland. She may have just got on the wrong boat, she may have come for any number of reasons, but did Scotland lose anything from her arrival? It should be clear that, when the racists talk of asylum-seekers, they really mean immigrants. And, when they talk about immigrants, they really mean ethnic minorities - most of them British born and bred. If there were no asylum-seekers and an end of all immigration, racism would merely turn its sights on those who just looked, sounded, ate, dressed or prayed differently to the rest of us.

We on the left have, traditionally and correctly, dismissed calls for curbs on immigration and asylum-seekers as little more than a fig leaf for racism. However, a simplistic, knee-jerk reaction to genuine concerns or worries about immigration and asylum simply dodges the underlying malaise and does nothing to allay fears, be they justified, exaggerated or based on ignorance and rumour. Most people in this country are not died-in-the-wool racists or bigots and Britain has some of the most enlightened anti-racist legislation and policies of any country, even if the practice often falls short of the goals. So why do so many ordinary people apparently see this issue as important? Has it simply been whipped up by the media? Well, yes it has. But the media can only whip up something where a potential already exists. In its post-empire and post-colonial era, Britain had lost its sense of identity as a world power. More recently, under Thatcher and Major, it witnessed the destruction of its working-class communities and this compounded that loss of identity, particularly for working class people who identified closely with the communities in which they lived and worked. It was Thatcher's boot-boy Norman Tebbitt who encouraged workers to "get on their bikes" and look for work.

Many were forced to up sticks and move elsewhere in their attempt to find those elusive jobs. Then there is the widespread alienation from politics. People see their political leaders indulging in lying, hypocrisy and opportunism and are, increasingly, turning away from the wider political process, believing that their views are unrepresented. Young people are virtually excluded from the housing market by the obscenely high prices, older people see their pensions threatened and there is no guarantee of genuine free health care or an adequate welfare support system. All these factors have led to insidious and creeping alienation, social instability and insecurity. In such situations, scapegoats in the form of an identifiable minority group are easily picked on and blamed. Immigrants, foreigners and asylum-seekers, particularly black ones, become easy targets and the BNP is exploiting this. Many groups of post-war immigrants have come from very different cultural backgrounds to those of British communities and, particularly in larger groups, they can be seen as a challenge to indigenous culture. It is true that immigrants have brought new ideas, new colour and innovation to the country. But they have also brought new challenges in terms of religion, culture and way of life, challenges to what the indigenous population saw or see as "their own way of life." Without sensitive and proactive integration policies, these challenges can easily develop into animosities and strife. To ignore this aspect is to ignore day-to-day reality.

There is also the objective factor of finite limits to our population. Britain is the most densely populated country in Europe and a small island only has a fixed amount of resources. Government statisticians say that the "UK population has grown nearly 20 per cent since 1950 and is still rising by the equivalent of one whole city - more than 200,000 people - every year. Continuous national population growth is fuelling internal population movement and adding development pressures and environmental degradation to almost all local areas." While there is no serious number crisis at the moment, I think that few of us would seriously argue that the country can easily accept unlimited numbers of new immigrants, on a continuous basis, without serious repercussions on social relations and resources. Although many would argue that there is, at present, no undue pressure and that the immigration "influx" has been greatly exaggerated, few would doubt that, if the rampages of the US and its allies continue, there will be increasing numbers of people fleeing their countries and putting pressure on the receiving nations. This is why the the dangerous immigration hysteria needs to be answered with more than a simple rejection of the issue as a whole. There has to be a joined-up and international consensus on all aspects of asylum and immigration.

The left needs to address people's concerns without pandering to racism or xenophobia. It can do that only by using facts in a sober and unemotional manner, countering media lies, hatred and exaggerations. It is good to see that the refugee charities have united to counter the widespread myths on immigration by publishing a booklet called Tell It Like It Is, which provides the true facts. We need to emphasise that there are very few people who willingly leave their country, their home, friends and relatives to move to an alien country without pressing reasons. These reasons are also varied but, for 99 per cent of these people, there are two main ones - oppression and economic poverty. Most people would like to see a solution which allows them to stay in their own country and we need to stress that this should be our joint aim - to assist all developing nations in dealing with the problems of tyranny and poverty so that people can stay, and will want to stay, in their own countries. This, of course, is hardly possible without a change to the rampant neoliberal economic polices of the US, the World Bank and IMF which has bolstered tyrants, fomented wars and created the economic devastation that forces tens of thousands to flee their homes in search of dignity and survival. Only by changing the roles of the World Bank and IMF, investing in the infrastructures of the poorer countries and combating corruption can the refugee problem be tackled properly and in the interests of those refugees.

Britain is not full up. There are hundreds of thousands of job vacancies and empty council houses. In whole areas of the country, like Scotland, populations are actually declining. There should be an amnesty of all exisiting asylum-seekers - these people want to be here and we need them. Bingo! The same goes for those who are living here in the twighlight world as "illegals," exploited and hunted. Then, we should publish an economic social demographic plan for population growth based on a points system and our own needs. No immigrant should be told that he must live separated from his wife and children - family unity is a moral imperative. And if we stopped bombing large numbers of refugees out of their own countries, fought for an economic system of global trade and economic justice, stopped propping up tinpot tyrannies throughout the poor world and distributed the resources of the world more fairly, we'd miraculously discover that, for the most part, people would, if they could, prefer to continue living in their own countries - visiting us as tourists, as we visit them.

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