Socialist Worker

What's happening in Sunderland?

by Helen Shooter reports
Issue No. 1817

THE MURDER of an Iranian refugee in Sunderland two weeks ago has shocked many local people. Peiman Bahmani was stabbed in the street he lived in at 3.40pm. He died later in hospital. A man has been charged with murder and racially aggravated assault. The tragedy shows what happens when the Nazis gain a foothold in an area by whipping up racism, and provide a false focus for ordinary people's frustration and discontent.

It also shows that the press and politicians' anti-refugee hysteria is encouraging racism. Sunderland was once a prosperous part of the north east of England. Its shipyards, mines and engineering factories provided work for generations of local people.

That feeling of security was wiped away when the last Tory government attacked these industries. The main employers in Sunderland closed down, driving tens of thousands of families into poverty. As one pensioner told Socialist Worker last weekend, 'We used to have so much - the shipyards, the pits. But Thatcher did away with all that 20 years ago. She crippled us.'

Sunderland is now one of the most deprived areas in Britain. Nearly half of Sunderland's 25 wards are in the top 10 percent of the most deprived in the country. People in Sunderland are more likely to suffer ill health and be educationally disadvantaged when compared to the national average. The area's official unemployment rate is 8.6 percent, according to TUC figures released in June. The national rate is 3.2 percent.

The Nissan car plant is one of the few examples of the 'new economy' in the area. But it's no substitute for the industries that used to employ whole families. Even these jobs are not 'safe'. Last weekend's Sunderland Echo reported that the electronics company LG Philips may sack 1,100 workers in its north east plants to profit from even cheaper labour in the Czech Republic.

The city's population is declining. Those who remain feel insecure, robbed of opportunity and that their plight is ignored by authorities locally and nationally. High profile regeneration schemes have provided more shops in the city centre and improved parks. Eager But, as Susan, a local resident, said, 'the projects being set up won't undo 20 years of destruction of the local area. 'It's going to be a much longer haul to make people feel the benefit of any regeneration here.'

The Nazi British National Party (BNP) has been eager to capitalise on this feeling of discontent. It stood in six wards in Sunderland in the election this year. In two wards it got 28 percent and 19.7 percent of the vote. The BNP is trying to scapegoat asylum seekers in the area. New Labour selected Sunderland and Newcastle as one of the key areas to dump asylum seekers into without providing any resources.

Private landlords apply to house refugees and get paid for doing so. In Sunderland they can buy several run down houses in a street for around £15,000 each, and then cram refugees into them. The landlords rake in profits but there are no extra services for refugees and local people.

The Nazis have seized on this to whip up racism. The police admit there has been a 154 percent rise in reported racist incidents between 1998 and 2001. Yet many refugees say the police have not taken their reports of racial harassment seriously.

'I live two streets away from where Peiman Bahmani was killed,' said Stella. 'I'm black and occasionally I get racist comments but I'm known in the area and have many friends. 'There are pockets of racists who are organising. 'The racists prefer to hit the softer targets which are the asylum seekers. When refugees move into the area they are a visible group. The racists coax people by saying they will force us out of our houses.

'These asylum seekers are mainly housed by private landlords who have a contract with the government. The refugees are known to live in certain streets. 'They are not given support, and there was no attempt to explain to the local community what was happening. 'We regularly get leaflets from racists through our doors which argue, 'Let's get all the blacks out of here'.'

The example of Sunderland shows that racists can become more confident in a climate where refugees are singled out nationally as a 'problem', and then dumped in deprived communities which are denied extra resources. New Labour's policy towards refugees is encouraging the Nazis to organise.

BBC gives BNP free publicity

BBC RADIO 4's morning news programme Today interviewed the BNP's youth organiser, Mark Collett, last week. Collett claimed the BNP was planning to hand out 100,000 leaflets nationally to school students.

He said it was launching this in Eltham, south east London, last week. This was the area where Stephen Lawrence was murdered. The Radio 4 interviewer did not refer to the five serious racist attacks that have happened in the area over recent weeks. The Anti Nazi League (ANL) organised a protest against the leaflet launch. The BNP did not turn up. It will have been very happy to receive free publicity from the BBC for its racist plan.

The Today programme ignored the ANL carnival in Manchester the previous day which brought 30,000 black and white people together.

Local people rally to support refugees

SOME 200 people joined a march last Saturday to show local opposition to the Nazis, and in support of refugees. Sean Kelly, the social services convenor for the local branch of Unison, spoke at the rally.

'When we met last week the whole of the union branch committee was shocked at what had happened to Peiman Bahmani. Virtually everyone on the committee is white but we understood what damage racism and attacks like this one will do. We voted to affiliate to the Anti Nazi League for the first time after the elections this year because of the deep concern at the vote the BNP Nazis got. We voted to back any initiative to support refugees. We have set up a fund, initially with a £500 donation, to support refugee campaigns and help with hardship.'

Two local pensioners spoke to Socialist Worker about why they support refugees in the area. Katie explained, 'It's disgusting what happened to that poor asylum seeker. We wouldn't want to be treated like that if we lived in their countries. How would we like it if what has happened in their countries should happen over here?'

Her friend Mary added, 'I have a refugee family living at the house which backs onto my garden. I think they're wonderful and we get on really well. 'The father has come over the back of my fence to help me do my garden. I think people should mix together more and not talk about getting rid of refugees.'

Stop the Nazi march

THERE IS outrage across Burnley at the British National Party (BNP) plan to hold a march on Saturday 21 September. Burnley Trades Council has called a counterdemonstration and is linking up with the Anti Nazi League's protest.

The BNP Nazis are trying to pose as defenders of the city's old people's homes. Labour-run Lancashire County Council announced earlier this year that it wants to shut 35 of the 48 homes. Some 19 of these homes are in east Lancashire, which includes Burnley.

'We don't want the BNP to speak for the protest we have been making since January against the homes' closures,' said Alice Thornber, one of the homes campaigners and a Labour councillor in Gannow ward. 'We will not let them hijack the campaign.' The local Unison union is planning a stall this Saturday in Burnley to build for the protest.

Stop the Nazis' march: Saturday 21 September, assemble 10.30am, Central Library, Peace Gardens, Burnley.
Join Unison members leafleting for the protest, this Saturday, 14 September, from 11am, at the bandstand, Burnley town centre.

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Article information

Sat 14 Sep 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1817
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