Socialist Worker

Why it's racist to attack refugees

Helen Shooter looks at how scapegoating leads to racist attacks

Issue No. 1802

NEW LABOUR claims that being hard on refugees and immigrants 'is not racist'. The Sun newspaper repeated this argument when it praised the government's tough asylum policy last week. Many of those who disagree with the Sun nevertheless echo some of these arguments.

They argue that cracking down on refugees cannot be racist because not all refugees are black or Asian. But it is not always skin colour which is the defining characteristic of racism. There is also racism against white people from Ireland and against Jewish people. Scapegoating asylum seekers involves picking on a small group of people and blaming them for all of society's ills.

A set of racist myths are then peddled in order to justify this harsh treatment of refugees. This is what has happened to successive groups of immigrants to Britain-both black and white.

There was racism against Irish immigrants in the 19th century. In 1836 a report on the Irish poor in Britain said, 'The Irish emigration into Britain is an example of a less civilised population spreading themselves beneath a more civilised community.' Jewish refugees also faced racism.

The Manchester City News in 1888, for example, attacked Jews fleeing pogroms in an article entitled 'Invasion Of England By Paupers': 'They rush upon us without a trade thoroughly helpless and incapable of doing aught else than offering, if taught, to do the work of an English man or English woman. Their unclean habits, wretched clothing and miserable food enable them to perpetuate existence upon a pittance.'

There were similar racist scare stories against West Indian immigrants in the 1950s. In 1958, just one day after racist riots against Caribbean immigrants in west London, the Times said:

'There are three main causes of resentment against coloured immigrants in the district. They are alleged to do no work and to collect rich sums from the Assistance Board. They are said to be able to find housing when white residents cannot. They are charged with all kinds of behaviour, especially sexual.'

Today the New Labour government and the press are using the same kind of techniques to demonise refugees. But every time governments and the media have whipped up such hysteria it has boosted racism.

In 1976 the press ran scare stories against 250 Asian people with British passports who had been expelled from the African country of Malawi. 'Asian Influx Will Swamp Us' and 'Immigrants: How Britain is Deceived' were two of the headlines.

The Sun tore into the Asian refugees who had been given temporary accommodation in an expensive hotel. 'Scandal Of £600 A Week Immigrants In A Luxury Hotel', it raged. In reality the Asians, who had fled for their lives, were going hungry in Britain because they could not afford to buy the hotel food and had no kitchen. A TV news report claimed that immigrants in Hillingdon, west London, were being given council houses.

This led to a flurry of stories blaming immigrants. Racists seized on this atmosphere. Tory MP Enoch Powell, who had stoked up racism eight years earlier in his 'rivers of blood' speech, raged about the 'limitless increase in the coloured population in English cities'.

Words lead to deeds

RACIST ATTACKS and murders shot up after the press hysteria over the Malawi Asians in 1976. Dinesh Choudhri, aged 19, and Riphi Alhadidi, aged 22, were stabbed to death by a gang of white youths as the two students walked to a Chinese restaurant in south Woodford, Essex.

Gurdip Singh Chagger, aged 18, was also stabbed to death by a gang of white youths outside a cinema in Southall. Kingsley Read, leader of a small Nazi organisation called the National Party, said of his death, 'One down, one million to go.' In September 1976 a 60 year old woman, Mohan Dev Gautam, was murdered.

A racist gang dragged her from her home in Leamington Spa and set her alight. At least four Asians, including Altab Ali, were murdered in east London by white gangs in the two years following the scare stories whipped up over the Malawi Asians. These attacks show how racist words lead to racist deeds.

The Labour government gave in to the racism and cracked down even further on immigrants. Its immigration officers at Heathrow airport began subjecting Asian women coming in to Britain to 'virginity tests'-internal examinations to determine if those planning to marry were virgins.

The Nazi National Front fed on this racist climate. It got nearly 3,000 votes-some 7 percent of the vote-in the Walsall by-election in November of that year. In 1977 the National Front threatened to replace the Liberals as the third party.

The roots of all this trace back to a witch-hunt over the possibility of just 250 Malawi Asian refugees coming to Britain. Today New Labour politicians who express anti-racist sentiments are at the same time scapegoating asylum seekers, which acts to boost racism.

But it is not possible to be anti-racist and anti-immigrant. Saying that refugees are welcome here is a blow against racism, and can help to undermine the far right.

This is who Blair is targeting

THE FOCUS of the witch-hunt against refugees and asylum seekers has been the Sangatte camp near Calais in France. Press and politicians demonise the people in the camp. Few have bothered to go there and talk to the refugees. Socialist Worker visited the camp last year.

Almost all the refugees at Sangatte have fled from countries ravaged by war, mainly Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo. They have often fled regimes the West has attacked for abusing human rights.

Most are educated, and want to come to Britain for the simple reason that they speak at least some English. Not a single person was trying to come to Britain to live off benefits. Most had skills that could contribute to society, and despite their desperate situation had a spirit and humour that would enrich any community.

They were people like Hamed, a 20 year old from Afghanistan. He fled the Taliban regime. 'I was studying,' he told us, 'but then I became old enough to be made to go and fight in the war. I don't want to fight and kill. I want to go to university.

'I can speak seven languages, but I am left rotting here.' Karazan had fled from Iraq. 'I was working in Iraq but I am a Kurd. I am an engineer and I can speak English. I was against Saddam and was beaten. My teeth were smashed by police. I had to leave if I wanted to have a life.'

Ziyan had also fled from Iraq with her severely disabled son, Qodoo. He needed specialist medical treatment. He couldn't get it in Iraq because of Western sanctions. 'There are not the doctors or equipment,' said Qodoo. 'My son is bleeding badly. He needs help. I hoped I could get into England.'

We have no idea where these people are now or what has happened to them. We do know that if Tony Blair, Peter Hain, David Blunkett and Iain Duncan Smith had their way these people could have been at the bottom of the sea, their boat sunk by the warships New Labour talks of unleashing against refugees.

Socialist Worker says that Hamed, Karazan, Ziyan, Qodoo, and people like them are our brothers and sisters, and they are welcome here.

The real figures

THE NUMBER of recorded asylum seekers entering the European Union has HALVED during the past decade, the Financial Times reported last week. 'To listen to Mr Blair and the rest you would think Western Europe had been overrun,' its columnist Philip Stephens remarked.

He reported that those claiming refuge each year represent only 0.1 percent of the total population of the European Union.

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