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Migrants need solidarity, not hostility

solidarity with the migrantsIt’s always satisfying when a government minister is forced to resign on grounds of hypocrisy. This applies particularly to Immigration Minister Mark Harper, the man who brought us last summer’s “Go home or face arrest” vans in multicultural areas of London. He was forced to quit after admitting employing a cleaner without checking her documents as demanded by the law. She on the other hand , has been handed over to the Home office enforcement teams, presumably to be removed as soon as possible to spare the government any more embarrassment. Cleaners, after all, do wash dirty linen, and might do it in public.

Government spin that Harper had committed no offence and would soon be back were undermined by a report that he had claimed £2,000 in parliamentary expenses for the work. However, understandable glee at Harper’s downfall should not distract us from an increasingly bleak outlook on asylum and migration issues. The Immigration Bill finished its passage through the House of Commons on January 30. It enshrines the removal of appeal rights, the introduction of policing duties for landlords and the extension of charges for NHS care.

The Labour front bench’s failure to oppose the bill meant that its passage was marked by various wings of the Tory Party trying to outflank each other on who could look toughest on migrants. Backbench Tories wanted us to do what Switzerland have just done in a referendum: abandon freedom of movement. It’s a populist and ultimately disastrous move, which the Conservatives and other right wing European governments support as part of a plan to dump all the workers’ rights and protections that Europe offers. They want a Europe where capital has free movement – and nothing else. This is a potential disaster for the 2.3 million British citizens now living in Europe and everyone else who is entitled to these rights.

Worse, Labour’s failure to challenge the elite consensus has allowed the right-wing media to go overboard on the nastiest kind of racial politics. Even a government minister accused the Daily Mail of running “absurd” and “entirely untrue” stories about Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants.

Conservative Party’s election strategist Lynton Crosby wants his party to begin producing ‘a new policy to curb immigrants and benefits’ every week. Cameron’s latest wheeze is to call for non-English speakers to be refused benefits. Meanwhile, UKIP are calling for a Muslim code of conduct and BNP splinter group, Britain First, has begun ‘Christian patrols’ of Whitechapel. Labour’s silence in the face of the growing climate of hostility to migrants is deafening.

A hostile environment for migrants is a declared aim of Tory policy. It appears to be working – among international students, for example, who contribute £7.9 billion to the UK economy each year, but who are now turning elsewhere to find an education. A new survey found 50% said they no longer feel welcome in the UK.

A recent report from the University of Sunderland has found that thousands of asylum seekers in the UK are living in long-term destitution. The authors argue that this could be tackled initially by allowing asylum seekers who are waiting to have their case decided to have the right to work.

The Home Office, meanwhile, will not be changing its approach, with or without Mark Harper. Recent leaked documents reveal “shockingly degrading” lines of questioning during interviews of gay and lesbian asylum seekers, despite clear guidance that such an approach is unacceptable.

Labour should be standing up for solidarity against hostility and highlight, praise and learn from the excellent work done by many local, mostly Labour, councils in supporting new communities to integrate, participate and contribute, in spite of the cuts to their resources. The front bench should pledge to reinstate that funding and take action against exploitative landlords and employers – not give them new ways to harass and discriminate against their workers and tenants.

We should celebrate the growing diversity of the UK, with “mixed race” the fastest growing “ethnic group”, proving that the young and the working class know how to integrate in practice. And we should mobilise the young, the migrants and the communities struggling to survive to get out and vote and organise. But for that Labour has to offer some hope.

Image Credit: Artwork by Left Futures, based on photo by Håkan Svensson

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