WAR OVER MANAGED MIGRATION
In the United States, immigration proposals from the Bush administration and Congress seem schizophrenic – on the one hand, they seek to end the spontaneous movement of undocumented people. At the same time, they also seek to channel migration into programs which would deliver migrants to industry as a contracted workforce.
This is not an approach unique to the US. Throughout the industrialized world, similar proposals have been made for using the huge global flow of migrants as a source of labor, while at the same time, restricting the ability of migrants to travel freely and decide for themselves where and when to live and work. At the same time, every industrialized country is experiencing the growth of political movements of the right, campaigning on platforms of ending migration, and even attacking migrants themselves.
In 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 National Party. David Bacon recently interviewed leaders of Britain’s two 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 in London. The change they describe in Britain’s immigration policies sounds uncannily similar to reforms being proposed in the US, while their description of its political consequences point to dangers ahead in any country that pursues them.
(Note: 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 US use the terms person or people of color.
His 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.
But 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 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?
We already have a work permit scheme, 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 one hundred and fifty to one hundred and seventy thousand 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 the country.
For 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 absolutely 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. And of course the biggest group who 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 upon their rights under the 1951 Geneva Convention. And the government is intent on ending that system all together, to reduce that migration to zero.
In order to make that managed system operate, the state has to have sanctions, to inflict punishment on people who break the rules. And 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 like these.
It's very controversial, because there's a very 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.
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?
Giving 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.
The system clearly isn't working. People who are clearly persecuted are not given refugee status. They're made to appeal, and we end up with tragic situations like that of Abbas Amini, on a hunger strike, with his ears, mouth, and eyes sewn closed. This situation is clearly not sustainable.
But 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% 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 expected to turn up at short notice to do extra shifts. Agriculture 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 really only be met by immigration.
The 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.
They’ve 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. And 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.
It’s been difficult for unions to organize these workers, because they feel that their immigration status is dependant 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, a guy originally from Jamaica. On the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers, he's been very effective in confronting government policy and bringing about important changes.
The 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 Express has no other front page or any other story to run on politics, while the Sun, 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, and the worse than the lies is 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 has created the climate for many racist murders of asylum-seekers.
In 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.
The 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 12 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 eleven years, and this is one of the worst periods that I've experienced as a black person.
PEACE & JUSTICE
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