University and College Union
by Merilyn Moos
On the 15th August, Cameron said “The government is aiming to make sure illegal immigrants cannot "break into Britain". The UK was taking its fair share of asylum seekers, he said, and he wanted to stop people getting in "without permission". And he reiterated that the migrants in Calais were a “swarm of people” trying to reach Britain.
Why do we reject this position?
Let’s start by looking at how Britain took in refugees in the past. To draw from Simon Jenkins (Guardian, 10.9.15), in 1914, 700,000 European Jews were estimated to have become refugees here; by the 1950s, there were 35,000 exile Poles registered in London alone; in 1972 Britain, under Edward Heath, Britain took 27,000 Ugandan Asians virtually overnight (It tells us something about the political position of this government that a journalist, not known for his left-wing credentials, pens an article : ‘If this is the best Britain can do for refugees, it’s sickening’.) Jenkins does not mention the better known figure of the 70-80,000 refugees who escaped Nazism and were allowed into Britain Then there were the refugees following the 1956 Hungarian uprising: 200,000 refugees fled and at least 13,000 were welcomed to Britain, again under a Tory Government. All these groups and others since, e.g. from the Balkans in the 1990s, have melted into British society.
But the Establishment’s construction of how they always help refugees is disingenuous. In 2013, Britain initially accepted only 36 percent of 23,507 asylum applications. Only around 1:10 of those who applied in the 1930s were given permission to enter: the Government’s record was appalling. For all the trumpeting about the generosity of the Government towards the Kindertransport, a mere 9,354 unaccompanied children were admitted in the last year before Second World War. A Freedom of Information request has just revealed that the government has removed 200 Syrian asylum seekers including 20 children. This is almost the exact number of Syrians it has so far accepted under the vulnerable persons scheme. 27 Syrians were removed from the UK this year.
This Government’s extreme anti-refugee position is evident in its use of language: not ‘refugees’ but ‘immigrants’, not ‘people’ but ‘swarms’. Without wanting to overegg the similarity, this is the language of difference, ‘othering’ and dehumanisation which the Nazis developed to an extreme towards the different groups they saw as inferior to them. No, the Tories are not Nazis but, with their narrow majority, they are attempting to create an enemy at the gates against whom they can appear as the nation’s saviours. And, rather than confronting UKIP’s xenophobia, they roll over before it. We need to build and argue for an alternative: ‘Refugees are welcome here’.
The Tories are attacking the refugees, but also attacking workers’ right to organise and strike, and the poorest and weakest in our society through a raft of proposals, including the Welfare Bill (the one that 3 of the Labour Party leadership contenders abstained over). The Tories want us to believe that they really are protecting us by keeping out the "hordes" who want our jobs and our homes. But it is the same Tories who have failed to provide a house building programme, who have privatised and starved the NHS and who have bailed out the bankers (with whom they went to school, after all). No, no, they still say it’s those migrants who are at fault. And yet the Tories claim to feel such compassion for these migrants that they are going to use their plight as an excuse to bomb their families in Syria. Now, that truly is a double whammy.
But the Tory Government has been taken by surprise by the overwhelming support for the refugees in Britain. At first Cameron held firm against letting in more than a tube carriage full. Yet when I went knocking at my neighbours’ doors to collect for the Calais refugees, everybody was keen to give: Cameron has misunderstood ‘middle England’. More than one million people have signed a petition organised by Change.org calling on the government to take action on the refugee crisis. So Cameron felt the need to change the rhetoric: as of today, Britain will take in 20,000 Syrians over the next five years, an equivalent to 4,000 a year: fewer than Germany took in over a couple of days. Moreover, these refugees are to be drawn from refugee camps, on the Syrian border, and disproportionately from orphaned children. Now, while all offers are welcome, what about the hundreds of thousands of refugees who are walking and stumbling across Europe in search of safety? What about the refugees on our doorstep, on the other side of the Channel, in Calais? But then the Calais refugees are more likely to be Africans and have darker skins than the fair skinned photogenic Syrians.
This is not the place to examine the many explanations for the present deadly disintegration in the Middle East: the crumbling away of the Sykes (UK)-Picot (France) agreement of 1916 which constructed artificial boundaries based on imperial interests, the military interventions of the ‘allies’ in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, the failure to hold Israel at a very minimum to United Nations resolutions about its terrorist role in Palestine, the abject failure to stop arms being sold to Israel ,to Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, and the continuing supplying of arms to every side in the Syrian conflict. Now the Government wishes to bomb Syria (as well as sending across drones to murder targeted individuals), another imperialist intervention which will augment the refugee crisis. British imperialist ‘interventions’ in the Middle East has massively contributed to the current mass exodus of refugees from Syria and elsewhere.
I shake as I witness the refugees, willing to risk their life in their wish to stay alive. I weep as I watch the Hungarian’s police’s brutality towards the exhausted and bewildered men and women. My parents were refugees too. When I see the refugees pushing their way through corn growing so high they are hidden by its leaves and crawling under barbed wire, I think of my father dodging the police and the Gestapo as, hunted for his anti-Nazi activities, he walked across Germany. My parents were the lucky ones, the 10% allowed into Britain. They survived.
Today’s refugees’ determination and the movement in their support represent a challenge to this government's barbaric position on immigration controls. We need to show our support for the refugees and our opposition to the Government’s ‘open the door a tiny crack’ policy. We need to call on our union and through them on other unions, to express concrete support.
- We need to press for a ‘Refugees welcome here’ position in UCU and the wider union movement.
- We need to demand that the refugees in Calais are allowed into Britain. No divide and rule. No ifs and buts.
Though it isn’t something we can only do through union channels, collecting stuff for the refugees (though check what is needed) eg through union branch organisation, is also a way of raising support for the refugees more generally. We call on the union executive to encourage branch collections and expressions of support.
The University of East London has responded to the refugee crisis by committing to offer ten postgraduate scholarships to Syrian refugees. The scholarships will cover all academic fees. UCU should publicise this initiative.