David Bacon Stories & Photographs


By David Bacon


LONDON (6/7/04) -- The debate over immigration has become a global one. According to 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.

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.

Question: Last year Abbas Amini, an Iranian man, 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?

Buyum: Abbas 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 simply couldn't take it any longer - the uncertainty that the goes with the life of an asylum seeker in Britain today. People spend months, even years, not knowing what will happen to them, where they'll end up, or whether there will be a knock on their door removing them from the country.

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.

Q: So 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?

B: 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 numbers of asylum seekers reflect 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?

Q: But while the government is taking this hard line on asylum seekers, isn’t it actually systematizing the importation of immigrant as workers?

Flynn: 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 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.

Q: That sounds like the US system of employer sanctions, in which people can’t work without legal status.

F: 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 making application for jobs, if they believe that they don’t have permission to work in the country. Now 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 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.

Q: Is it controversial because people have a certain feeling of sympathy for immigrants, who are the object of this program?

F: 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 1 person in 8 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.

Q: One justification for this new policy in the media is the idea that asylum seekers are just coming to Britain for jobs anyway, even though they’re legally not allowed to work.

B: It is a fallacy that the majority of asylum-seekers are economic migrants, that they have no fear of persecution - that is simply not true. People like Abbas Amini are clearly fleeing persecution, war, and torture, coming from conflict zones. Obviously conflict and 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?

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.

Q: Are 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 where, for people who are not white?

B: 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. Now I'm not saying 'target Australians,’ but it is a clear example of racism. 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 terrorists.

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.

Q: How many immigrants are there in Britain, and of them, how many people are in some kind of undocumented status?

F: About 7% of the population, or about 5 million people, were born outside of the United Kingdom. UK nationality law is reasonably liberal, and to claim British citizenship you only need 5 years residency and a reasonable competence in English. So the number currently living and working without British citizenship is about 1 million. In terms of clandestine element, nobody knows the true size is there, because they're underground, but perhaps it’s in the region of 300,000 people. With a working population of probably twenty-four million people, it's a relatively small fragment, but the government is setting its sights on them.

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.

Q: What are the conditions and wages of workers who are in that section of the British economy?

F: 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 the 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 brutal way.

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.

Q: What 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?

B: 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.

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.

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