The sinister underside of New Labour’s racist, dehumanising immigration policy came to light at a trade union and community conference over the weekend. It is a Kafkaesque world of state-organised disappearances, unlimited detention, rapid expulsions, exploitation and destitution designed to divide communties and win cheap votes at election time.
Real life experiences related to the conference make a mockery of the claim by New Labour’s Border and Immigration Agency chief Lin Homer last week that: "We operate a firm but humane system, supporting those who are vulnerable with accommodation and assistance.” She was responding to the publication of a year-long investigation by the Independent Asylum Commission , led by an ex-senior judge, John Waite which said that “treatment of some asylum seekers was a shameful blemish on the UK’s international reputation”.
Speakers at Saturday’s conference included a representative from the All African Women’s Group based at Crossroads Women’s Centre, and asylum seekers Robinson Baldeon and Alphonsus Okafor-Mefor. They and others from around the country painted a grim picture which backed up the detailed research published by the Asylum Commission, but also documented how asylum seekers are courageously organising, inside and outside detention centres, to defend their rights.
John McDonnell MP, whose constituency includes the Harmondsworth and Colnbrook detention centres, revealed some of the most grotesque aspects of government policy. He believes that more than 800 people are currently being held at these two locations alone, although no one knows the exact figures. Some migrant workers are being picked up by immigration authorities and police and handcuffed while signing on at Job Centres. Some are even taking suitcases with them when they go to sign on in fear of arrest and deportation.
McDonnell denounced the sinister tactics adopted by the immigration authorities, which meant that those he and other MPs were trying to help often simply disappeared off the radar: “Often the only appeals which the authorities recognise at all are from MPs, but people are being shifted around the country. It is extremely difficult to find where they have been taken and MPs like myself are often told that the asylum seeker is no longer in their constituency, so that they cannot represent them.” There was an entire separate population sleeping rough, some in churches, some on friend’s floors or in the open, and a policy of brutality to young people who can now also be deported before they reach the age of 18, McDonnell said. He called on the trade unions to recruit asylum seekers and mount a national campaign on their behalf.
Alphonsus Okafor-Mefor showed the reality of the statistic that four out of every ten asylum seekers are destitute. Thanks to his own determination and community support, Alphonsus managed to receive “leave to remain”, but he said that the life of an asylum seeker was a “life of despair and hopelessness, with no right to work, medical care, good accommodation or education”. The experience of detention debased humanity, he said. “I am one of thousands who don’t have the chance to speak out.”
Robinson Baldeon, a refugee from Ecuador, said that as an “illegal” worker “it is a crime to go sick”. The 90,000 Ecuadorians who live in the UK are “invisible”, he added. Another speaker said that a woman had been held for four days in a police cell near Victoria station, without legal representation, money, adequate food, or chance to shower before being secretly deported. Under the new “fast-track” system, Britain is reportedly deporting one asylum seeker every eight minutes.
And it is not only the government which is denying basic rights to immigrant workers. Chinese workers in central London, who recently held a demonstration against dawn raids, want to hold a rally in Trafalgar Square. Jabez Lam from Chinese Immigration Concern Committee (CICC) said that Greater London Authority officials had told him that it was only possible to hold a rally in the square if there was a “special reason” and if the organisers took out a public liabilities insurance policy of £80,000.
Secretary, A World to Win