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We are proud to defend refugees

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Issue 1700

Campaign gains momentum

We are proud to defend refugees

By Helen Shooter

JACK STRAW, the home secretary, and his shadow, Ann Widdecombe, failed to win over anyone in a 350-strong audience to support their attacks on refugees on Monday of last week. They were part of a panel brought together by the Observer newspaper to debate the question, “Is Britain’s treatment of asylum seekers fair?”

The chair put that question to a vote at the beginning of the debate. Every single person voted that Britain was treating asylum seekers unfairly. That strong vote set the tone for the evening. It put those who attack refugees on the defensive.

Ann Widdecombe was forced to say she welcomed “genuine” refugees, and said that “nobody is saying we don’t want economic migrants”. However, she stressed that most refugees coming to Britain were “abusive” applicants and that every refugee should be locked up in a detention centre.

The right wing Daily Express columnist Peter Hitchens appeared to be deranged as he launched an attack on refugees and those who campaigned in support of them. Jack Straw tried to present himself as torn. He said the government wanted to help refugees but was constrained by legislation and what the country can afford.

But he could not answer the stream of questions from the audience which exposed New Labour’s appalling treatment of refugees. Kate Harper from the Save the Children Fund asked him, “How can you justify locking up children as young as two years old in detention centres?” A parish priest in south London won enthusiastic applause when he said, “I expected more of a Labour government.”

Other questions from the audience which attacked the government for its voucher system and treating refugees as “second class citizens” gave confidence to the two panelists who supported refugees. Nick Hardwick from the Refugee Council was widely applauded for again and again taking on the myths about refugees that Widdecombe and Hitchens put forward. He concluded, “Refugees are not a problem, they are an opportunity.”

Imran Khan, lawyer to the Stephen Lawrence family, also won the audience with his attacks on Widdecombe and Straw for whipping up racism. At the end of the debate the chair asked, “Should Britain let in many more refugees?” Virtually every hand shot up to agree.

This growing mood to defend refugees can help make the demonstration on 24 June in London a big show of solidarity with asylum seekers.

We can raise money

THE COVENTRY Refugee Centre is making an urgent appeal for donations to help asylum seekers staying in the city. The centre also accepts donations of baby equipment like pushchairs, clothes, shoes, bedding, household equipment and toys for redistribution to asylum seekers. It was opened at St Peter’s Social Centre in Charles Street, Hillfields, last month to provide a drop-in point for asylum seekers. Penny Walker from the centre said, “Pushchairs are in very high demand because refugee mothers with babies and young children find it difficult to venture outside the house alone. Many are now being housed a long way from the centre, and with no cash for bus fares it is very difficult for them.”

In Edinburgh the local association of the lecturers’ EIS-CLA union has donated 500 towards the cost of a press advert. The three unofficial fanzines of Sheffield Wednesday football club have sponsored the statement due to appear in the local press. Nick Riley, a local steel worker and editor of War of the Monster Trucks, said,

“After we took a stand I approached the other two fanzines and they were supportive too. Brian Binks, chairman of the team’s independent supporters association, has also backed the statement. We think it’s important we send out an anti-racist message on the terraces.”

A great response

LOCAL CAMPAIGNS in support of asylum seekers are springing up across Britain. In Sheffield there were two successful local meetings last week. Around 25 people attended a meeting in the Burngreave area addressed by a representative from the Somali association.

A housing worker suggested collecting toys and food for refugees around the area. It was also suggested that a street party was organised to welcome refugees to the area. A reporter from the Burngreave Messenger, a free local newspaper, came along and asked one of the campaigners to write up a report of the meeting.

Nineteen people attended a meeting in Sharrow addressed by Martin Mayer, TWGU member on Sheffield First Mainline buses. The meeting planned a number of activities, including door to door leafleting and a stall at an anti-racist festival. People talked of organising open days at local venues across the city with the theme “Sheffield says welcome”, featuring exhibitions and information about asylum seekers.

Some 20 people came along to a local meeting in Greenock in Scotland, including members of the Scottish National Party and Amnesty International. They were encouraged to hear that two young Algerian asylum seekers, who had been arrested for sleeping rough, had been released from their prison cells in Greenock.

Local campaigners had held two protests of over 50 people outside the prison. Over 90 people attended a rally defending asylum seekers in Leeds on Friday of last week, with another 35 at a meeting in Huddersfield. Some 160 people attended a rally in Newcastle on Thursday of last week where eight different union banners were displayed around the hall.

The meeting heard campaigners speak about activities in support of seven asylum seekers who had been detained in prison after they protested against the conditions they are forced to live in by the private Angel Group firm. The National Union of Teachers association in Mid-Warwickshire has taken up the issue of defending asylum seekers across schools in the area.

“We passed a motion saying we wanted to put an advert in the local paper in support of refugees,” says John Lockwood, secretary of the NUT association. Now we are writing to schools in the area asking for individuals, union branches and groups to put their names on that advert. The idea came from something I was involved in in east London in the 1970s. It was against the National Front then, and we used a network of activists to gather 500 names for the press advert. I think that idea fits with a campaign around asylum seekers today.”

Attack result of racist lies

A 15 year old Turkish boy was racially assaulted in New North Road in Islington in North London on Wednesday of last week. Two white teenagers beat him up and threw him into a canal. One of the racists slashed him across the top of the head with a knife.

He was taken to Homerton Hospital, east London. The police have not revealed how serious his injuries are. The local Anti Nazi League got a good response when they petitioned in Chapel Market on Sunday.

Church speaks out

ANTI-RACISTS in south east London are campaigning in support of a Kosovan family in Lewisham which is facing systematic racist abuse. Members of the family told Socialist Worker how their front door had been repeatedly daubed with racist and offensive graffiti.

A gang of about a dozen youths tried to kick down the front door two weeks ago. A second asylum-seeking family, also of six, are staying in the small flat because racists have driven them out of their accommodation in Smethwick in Birmingham.

The daubing of a swastika on the front door three weeks ago caused outrage in the local area. Paul Butler, the rural dean of east Lewisham, spoke out in his church against the attack.

He told Socialist Worker, “Most people here are not racist. But the scapegoating stories in the media have encouraged a minority, who may have links to Nazi groups such as the NF and BNP, to put up graffiti and intimidate people. Ann Widdecombe and Jack Straw have encouraged that climate. The Tories are playing with fire through their attacks on refugees. New Labour is conceding the ground and letting them get away with it.”

Anti-racist campaigners have petitioned door to door in the area and are holding a meeting in defence of asylum seekers. They are also determined to get a strong local contingent on the national demonstration against the scapegoating of refugees in two weeks time.

Anti-Nazis oppose the NF in Margate

ANTI NAZI League supporters disrupted the Nazi National Front’s attempt to march in Margate last Saturday. About 60 Nazis turned up and marched, protected by police in riot gear. But ANL supporters blocked the seafront and prevented the marchers from reaching a planned rally at the clocktower.

The police eventually turned the marchers around and escorted them to the station. This is the second time the Nazis have marched against asylum seekers in Margate in recent weeks. The Nazis want to whip up and capitalise on anti asylum seeker racism.

They were hoping to make a breakthrough on Saturday. But in fact they got less support from local people than on the last march. About ten local people supported the Nazis. The police arrested six ANL supporters. They also arrested two Nazis, including one who threw a lump of metal that hit a woman.

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