By Elane Heffernan
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Immigration: Last Refuge of the Racists

This article is over 18 years, 5 months old
Where the Mail and the Daily Express lead on migration policy, home secretary David Blunkett and Tony Blair are sure to follow.
Issue 283

After weeks of mounting hysteria in the gutter press declaring that every Roma in eastern Europe will move to Britain in May, Blunkett announced ’tough‘ new measures to restrict legal migration of workers from the ten east European countries that are about to join the EU. The measures, in direct response to demands from the racist press, the Tories and the BNP, will force migrant workers to carry ID cards (which, we are told, will then be extended to all EU citizens in Britain, presumably including British nationals). All access to social housing and benefits is to be denied for at least two years. Workers will also be forced to register on work schemes and, chillingly, Blunkett tells us that people will be sent back if they cannot find work or if migrants ’put pressure on communities‘.

These measures come alongside the latest assault on asylum seekers – the last legal route for Third World migrants – and are an attempt to curb the growth of the BNP by stealing its clothes. But, like the anti-asylum measures, they will only fuel racism by giving the Daily Express and the BNP a licence to whip up scares. They will create the impression that Blunkett‘s measures are needed to prevent ’us‘ from being swamped by tides of benefit-seeking economic migrants. Studies have shown that the more politicians talk of migration as a problem, the greater the number of people who feel that immigration is a threat – the direct opposite of Blunkett‘s stated intention of calming fears. Already opinion polls show that many believe the numbers of asylum seekers to be ten times higher than they really are.

Britain is far from being alone in greeting the expanded EU with new racist measures – across the fortress ever more vicious measures to control migration are coming into force. The Dutch government, despite criticism from the UN High Commission on Refugees, has recently announced that 26,000 are to be forcibly deported to countries like Afghanistan, Somalia and Chechnya which are admitted to be unsafe. Many have lived in Holland for up to eight years.

Under the EU expansion deal, the freedom of movement granted to citizens of the richer west European countries is to be denied to citizens of the poorer new nations for up to seven years. Germany, Austria, Belgium and Finland led the way in announcing a ban on any migration of workers from the ten countries, and one by one the other governments have announced restrictions on entry or social rights.

Thus the brunt of the latest attack will be borne by the Roma of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania. In all of these countries the old racism against the Roma has reignited into a new round of scapegoating with vicious attacks, economic exclusion, and in Romania the building of new ghettos, as neoliberal measures have smashed already fragile economies. Now they will be welcomed to the west with the kind of racist attacks and screaming headlines that greeted Asian migrants in the late 1960s and 1970s or Caribbean workers in the 1950s.

All the old characteristics of that racism remain but there is a new note on the curbs both on the east European Roma and on asylum seekers. Both social democratic and openly right wing governments across Europe talk with one voice, not of universal human rights or even universal restrictions on entry, but of a two-tier workforce – one in which migrants may come on a temporary basis, just so long as they are extra-cheap and useful – and can have their roots torn up and families thrown out as soon as they cease to be a source of supercheap profit.

The asylum measures and the new restrictions form part of Blunkett‘s irrational attempt to balance conflicting pressures, that of the racists‘ demands for stricter immigration control to which Labour has always bowed in office and the needs of the CBI, which is demanding easier access to a cheap and flexible workforce.

According to the Economic and Social Research Council, the decline in fertility and the ageing of the population will reduce the effective labour force by 5.5 percent across the EU by 2020 – one of the reasons behind the attack on pensions and the attempt to make us work till we drop. The need, the think-tank concludes, is to create a more flexible pan-European labour force – a point Blunkett echoed in announcing the new restrictions. Britain, he tells us, is not banning all entry from the ten states, because we need to fill 550,000 jobs and the expansion gives a new pool of cheaper workers in shortage areas such as teaching, medicine, engineering, science, and social work – jobs that cannot easily be filled by the most flexible and exploited workers of all, the undocumented Third World workers, many of them registered asylum seekers.

The CBI and Blunkett are hoping the new workers will both create a downward pressure on the wage bill for all of us, by filling shortages and removing some of the unions’ bargaining power, and cut the social wage. They aim to do this by creating a category of workers who do not burden the state with the cost of their education, and can be denied unemployment benefit and pensions when they are older. This is an extension of the role currently filled in the murderous twilight zone of undocumented Third World migrant labour, many of whom are asylum seekers banned from legal work.

The attacks on migrant workers are Labour’s new divide and rule – an attempt to further the neoliberal agenda by attacking welfare. But it is an attack couched in the language of race – the better to confuse our class and weaken resistance. There is only one way to protect the living conditions of all workers in Europe – migrant or not: open the borders and let us live and organise together!

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