debate over immigration has become a global one. According to the
Geneva-based Migrant Watch, over 130 million people live outside
the countries in which they were born. All over the world huge streams
of migrants are fleeing war, repression, and poverty, journeying
from the developing countries of the third world to the industrial
countries of the so-called global north. At the same time, the industrial
economies have become dependent on the work of migrants, who form
a sub-class of people working in jobs with the lowest wages, least
security, and most dangerous conditions.
the United States, immigration proposals from the Bush administration
and Congress seem schizophrenic. They seek to end the spontaneous
movement of undocumented people, while also channeling migration
into programs that would deliver migrants to industry as a contracted
the industrialized world, similar proposals have been made for using
the huge global flow of migrants as a source of labor, while restricting
the ability of migrants to travel freely and decide for themselves
where and when to live and work.
Britain, this new approach is called “managed migration”
and it is causing a firestorm of controversy, leading to hunger
strikes by asylum seekers, and the growth of the far-right British
recently interviewed two of Britain’s leading pro-immigrant
organizations, Milena Buyum, coordinator for the National Assembly
Against Racism, and Don Flynn, policy coordinator for the Joint
Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. Both organizations have offices
Buyum and Flynn use the terms black person and black people to refer
to all non-white people, including immigrants from Asia and Latin
America, as well as Africa, in much the same way people in the U.S.
use the term people of color.)
Last year Abbas Amini, an Iranian, sewed his eyes and ears and mouth
closed, and went on a hunger strike in which he almost died, to
protest his possible deportation from Britain. Since then he’s
become a powerful symbol for immigrants who accuse the British immigration
system of being riddled with racism. Why has his case attracted
so much attention?
Amini was granted refugee status in Britain because he was involved
in political activity in Iran where he was imprisoned and tortured.
He fled Iran and arrived in Britain where he claimed asylum. His
protest began when the Home Office declared its intention to appeal
his status—in essence, to deport him. He couldn’t take
it any longer: the uncertainty that goes with the life of an asylum
seeker in Britain.
extreme form of protest symbolized the condition in which people
are living, mentally and physically. He was saying he was prepared
to die rather than be returned to Iran. I fear many others may follow
the same course of action.
his case also symbolized the drive by the government to reduce the
ability of asylum seekers to gain legal status. The prime minister
promised on television that he would cut in half the number of asylum
applications and that the government would carry out 30,000 removals
a year. They are not actually capable of doing this, but they do
stage high profile public deportations days before local elections.
Abbas Amini was being used as an example.
the government measures the success of its immigration policy in
terms of the reduction of the number of asylum seekers and the number
of people it’s able to deport?
Absolutely, and not just here. This is an increasingly common
approach to asylum in most of Europe. Governments are no longer
concerned about the merits of the individual case, despite what
the UN Convention clearly states. The number of asylum seekers reflects
the growing world situation—conflict and economic conditions
that threaten the livelihood of millions of people. Diseases such
as AIDS are attacking whole continents. The talk about halving the
numbers totally disregards that reality. The government says that
only a tough approach to asylum will stop the rise of far-right
extremism, but its approach is not only politically and morally
wrong, it doesn’t work. A tough approach on asylum fuels racism,
rather than stops it. It doesn’t make people more tolerant.
Meanwhile, the mainstream politicians who support this policy legitimize
racism. The ultimate aim of the organized racists, such as the British
National Party and All White Britain, is removal by force. So how
far is the government willing to go?
while the government is taking this hard line on asylum seekers,
isn’t it actually systematizing the importation of immigrants
Tony Blair has announced that modernized immigration policies in
the UK are going to be based on the recruitment of immigrants to
work in large numbers—what the government calls a managed process.
I think the guest worker approach is very much what the government
has in mind, at least for a significant fraction of the migrant
labor force. We already have work permit schemes, where an employer
registers a vacancy they can’t fill from the local labor market
and then brings in someone they’ve identified from abroad.
About 150,000 to 170,000 people are admitted on that basis. Now
they’re talking about seasonal schemes in labor shortage industries
and licensing employers to recruit unskilled or informally skilled
workers. Their stay will be time-limited, less than 12 months, and
there will be no family reunification rights. Employers will round
up workers on the completion of their jobs and send them out of
35-odd years, government’s official line was to go as close
as possible to zero immigration. In 1997, that changed with the
advent of the Labor government who said that immigration could be
part of a modernization of the British economy able to compete in
highly competitive global labor markets. They said they wanted immigration
policies based on the needs of British industry and commerce. This
is called managed migration. At the same time, the government is
intent on ending all spontaneous migration, that is, people who
arrive in the country on their own initiative, hoping to sort things
out legally once they’re here. Of course, the biggest groups
that have been in that position have been humanitarian migrants,
who basically have no choice in the matter, hoping that they will
be able to rely on their rights under the 1951 Geneva Convention.
The government is intent on ending that system alltogether, to reduce
that migration to zero.
order to make that managed system operate, the state has to have
sanctions, to inflict punishment on people who break the rules.
A system of punishment will only be supported by public opinion
if there is an acceptance that irregular immigrants have done something
seriously wrong. Until comparatively recently, nobody thought it
was a big deal if somebody’s immigration papers were not entirely
in order. But that is changing. The government wants the population
to think that it is a significant issue if you haven’t got
the right stamps in your passport, if you haven’t been given
explicit permission to do one job as opposed to another, if you’ve
had access to a public benefit that wasn’t intended, or if
a member of your family has managed to join you. The government
wants public support for inflicting serious punishment for offenses
sounds like the U.S. system of employer sanctions, in which people
can’t work without legal status.
Sanctions were incorporated into the immigration act passed in 1996,
but they’ve never been used. Now employers are being told they
have to turn over people who are applying for jobs if they believe
that they don’t have permission to work in the country. The
government has decided to introduce identity documents so employers
can identify who can work and who can’t. It’s very controversial
because there’s a strong streak in popular culture that goes
back to common law. People are presumed to be within the law unless
there is strong reason for believing they’re not. The notion
that anybody in authority can stop and interrogate someone and ask
him or her to prove they are who they claim to be goes very much
against the traditional British approach. The government is expecting
a big battle.
it controversial because people have a certain feeling of sympathy
for immigrants who are the object of this program?
I think that’s changing. One of the government’s objectives
is an increased consciousness that there are people with irregular
immigration status in the British population and support for getting
rid of them. London is a very cosmopolitan city. Something like
one person in eight was born in another country and a large number
of immigrants have settled in the UK for many years. But the public
policy debate has been completely transformed over the last five
or six years.
justification for this new policy in the media is the idea that
asylum seekers are coming to Britain for jobs anyway, even though
they’re legally not allowed to work.
BUYUM: It is a fallacy that the majority of asylum
seekers are economic migrants, that they have no fear of persecution.
People like Abbas Amini are clearly fleeing persecution, war, and
torture, coming from conflict zones. Obviously, war has economic
implications—people lose their livelihoods as a result of it.
If there is no infrastructure in your city because it’s been
totally destroyed, if there is no health service, what are you to
do? We do not disagree with giving work permits to people to enable
them to work because we believe that is a political acceptance of
the fact that Britain, like any other country in this world, needs
people in order to make the economy more buoyant. That acknowledgement
is a good argument in favor of positive policies on immigration
rather than restrictions. What we are concerned about, however,
is who the government means when it talks about migrant workers.
Who will be given work permits?
work permits to carefully targeted, skilled individuals, to attract
them to jobs in Britain, has obvious advantages for the British
economy. But this would not be a very good thing for the economies
of the countries from which these people are recruited because they
are then lost to their own country. It is true that public services
in Britain are crippled because we hire too few people with important
skills, such as doctors, nurses, and teachers. But there are people
already here whose talents are not used. The government should use
that talent before it starts seeking skilled individuals from elsewhere.
you also worried that work permits might be used as political rewards
for countries that line up with the Blair government on foreign
policy questions or that they want to take immigrants from white
countries and not countries in the developing world with people
who are not white?
British immigration and asylum-policy is riddled with racism. One
very obvious example is illegal migration from New Zealand and Australia.
There are clearly people illegally working in Britain, flouting
the country’s immigration rules, who are not actively pursued.
The Home Secretary doesn’t talk of being swamped by Australian
young people working in pubs or restaurants. Tabloid newspapers
use the phrase “illegal asylum-seekers,” but you cannot
break the law by seeking asylum. It’s a right enshrined in
international law. But the typical image of an asylum seeker now
is someone from Eastern Europe who looks like a Roma or a Gypsy,
begging in the streets with a baby in arms, probably a young woman
who doesn’t speak English. The stereotype is that they’re
here to scrounge off Britain, if they’re not, of course, “Muslim
many immigrants are there in Britain, and of them, how many people
are in some kind of undocumented status?
About 7 percent of the population, or about 5 million people, were
born outside of the United Kingdom. UK nationality law is reasonably
liberal. To claim British citizenship you only need five years residency
and a reasonable competence in English. So the number currently
living and working without British citizenship is about one million.
In terms of the clandestine element, nobody knows the true size
because they’re underground, but perhaps it’s in the region
of 300,000 people. With a working population of probably 24 million
people, it’s a relatively small fragment, but the government
is setting its sights on them.
the black economy, of which they’re a part, has grown in leaps
and bounds over the last few decades. The informal economy is about
14 percent of the total GDP, so it employs a lot of people. They’re
paid wages below the minimum, with substandard working conditions
and no holidays, and are expected to turn up on short notice to
do extra shifts.
is very dependent on migrants, as it is in countries all over the
world. The construction industry has traditionally depended on Irish
nationals who have always been free to come to the UK. But in recent
years there has been no significant immigration from Ireland and
people from central and Eastern Europe have taken the work. In any
industry with antisocial working hours you can expect to find immigrants.
The National Health Service is hugely dependent on immigrant workers.
Despite reforms to nursing, with increases in wages and prestige,
there are still very significant shortages, which can only be met
other big area is education, particularly in London. Most substitutes
come from a largely immigrant labor force of qualified teachers
who are prepared to accept these flexible conditions—having
to travel across London at very short notice to do a week’s
work here and a week’s work there.
What are the conditions and wages of workers who are in that
section of the British economy?
The most common thing is low wages. Minimum wages in the UK are
currently fixed at just over four pounds an hour. In some parts
of the country, where housing costs are lower, it’s possible
to manage on that. But in London it’s not. London’s housing
costs are huge, so sometimes housing is provided by employers in
sort of hostel conditions—people crammed together in an unsanitary
and dangerous situation. In construction and agriculture, it’s
often provided on-site where discipline is imposed by people known
as “gang masters” who are responsible for recruitment,
enforcement, and settling disputes. They often do that in a pretty
created a completely casual labor force where people turn up in
the morning and are hired for the day. What people think will be
a day’s work can turn out to be three hours. There’s an
expectation that they’ll accept that. There’s no opportunity
to complain and trade union involvement in that sector is very weak.
been difficult for unions to organize these workers because they
feel that their immigration status is dependent on the approval
of their employers and so there’s often a great reluctance
to commit themselves to a union or to militant activity. But the
trade union movement is looking at ways to highlight the exploitation
in these jobs and appeal to the immigration authorities. It is contrary
to basic concepts of justice if they revoke the immigration permits
of these people who are quite legitimately resisting exploitation.
So that’s part of unions’ political and organizing agenda.
The most senior union officer in the UK is Bill Morris, the general
secretary of the Transport and General Worker’s Union. On the
rights of refugees and asylum seekers, he’s been very effective
in confronting government policy and bringing about important changes.
have been the political consequences of the contradictions in government
policy, discouraging and deporting asylum seekers on the one hand,
and setting up a recruitment scheme for immigrant workers as guest
workers, on the other?
The government is following a totally disastrous line on asylum,
which has contributed to the rise of extremism in British politics,
particularly the British National Party, an open neo-Nazi far-right
organization. To call them a party is probably an overstatement,
although their influence is clearly growing. They gained three seats
with the 2002 local council elections. Last year they gained 13
seats. In 12 months, they increased from no seats at all to 16 elected
posts. They’ve been on the fringe of British politics until
now, but their political approach in recent years has changed, dropping
their skinhead look and appearing now much more respectable. It’s
not strictly a white working-class underprivileged vote. It is a
complex support, depending a great deal on shop-owners and self-employed
people. It’s strong in white-flight areas populated by people
who left London because it’s becoming more multicultural.
media spread lies about asylum seekers—that they’re given
free mobile phones, newly decorated flats with color TVs, and free
food. The three-year-long media frenzy on asylum is ongoing and
shows no sign of abating. The
has no other front
page or any other story to run on politics, while the
just before local elections, ran a petition campaign, which raised
400,000 signatures for ending all migration into Britain. Very few
speak out against it—worse than the lies are the silence or
collusion of mainstream politicians. The Home Secretary spoke of
asylum seekers swamping doctor surgeries and schools—this terminology
only helps legitimize the far right, the neo-Nazis. The hysteria
this whips up has created the climate for many racist murders of
reality, asylum seekers only get basic accommodations nobody else
wants. A lot are even detained in prison conditions. Social inequality
is persisting if not deepening. Children born in Britain of Bangladeshi
origin are more likely to suffer infant mortality than in Bangladesh.
We have got third world conditions affecting black communities in
Britain today. Poverty obviously affects white people too, but the
impact on black communities is much greater.
treatment of black people in the criminal justice system is a huge
sore in the face of this country. Black people are more likely to
get higher sentences than white people for the same crimes, are
more likely to die in police custody, and are 27 times more likely
to be stopped and searched. Meanwhile, major high-profile murders
of black people still have not been solved. There are only twelve
black MPs in Parliament and only two Muslim MPs, although Islam
is the second largest religion. I’m not advocating religious
representation, but I think communities which are under attack should
have the right to representation. I’ve lived in Britain for
11 years, and this is one of the worst periods that I’ve experienced
as a black person.
David Bacon is
a freelance writer and photographer.