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One People, One World

Contribution to a meeting held in Birmingham on September 21st 2003 by Chris Cooper

The treatment of asylum seekers in Britain is a national disgrace. It is also in breach of fundamental human rights and UN conventions. Obviously it overrides, de facto if not de jure, the 1951 Convention on refugees, but to my mind the breaches include not only the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human rights, but also the declaration of the rights of the child and the Convention on the rights of the child. Countering the lies against asylum seekers therefore is a defence of human rights.

Why is the question of Human Rights such an important one for us all? Millions of people throughout the world, over thousands of years have courageously fought against oppression and injustice. But it was only after a catastrophic world war and the defeat of fascism and the terrible experience of the Holocaust that there was a concerted effort to establish a universal definition of human rights and an international law to uphold them. People throughout the world were saying 'never again'. So, the death of millions gave birth to the United Nations Declaration of Human rights and the UN General Assembly. Humanity was finally taking responsibility for the future and enshrining all those fundamental rights in law - above all the right to life itself.

And that fundamental right, to live, lies at the heart of the right to asylum. The 1951 UN Convention on Refugees states that asylum should be granted to all those with a:

"Well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion…"

And for the overwhelming number of those seeking refuge in Britain it is simply a matter of life and death, whether they are fleeing racially motivated abuse, torture and rape or fleeing from being trapped in that largest and most particular of 'social groups' that the convention refers to - the world's poor. Poverty is the greatest oppression, people flee it in order to survive. The terms 'economic migrant' and 'bogus' are not only derogatory they are intentionally misleading. And we should condemn their use outright.

The ability of any society to offer protection and safety to those in need is a measure of civilisation. But our society is becoming increasingly barbaric. The detention of children in centres like Dungavel is wrong. The fact that there now has to be a campaign led by artists like Ken Loach and Peter Mullin to raise bail funds to free families from imprisonment in Dungavel is an affront to us all. Imprisoning families is simply inhuman. And furthermore if we deny basic rights to one section of society, easy targets like asylum seekers, then we endanger the basic rights of all of us.

We need to address the causes of the conditions that produces asylum seekers and refugees. Globalisation is creating enormous disparities in wealth, inflaming regional tensions and conflicts and engendering new wars of conquest like the illegal invasion of Iraq. A brief glance at the Home Office's own 2003 1st Quarter arrival statistics tell us an unavoidable truth: There have been 16,000 applicants, the four countries heading the list reads in this order - Iraq, Somalia, Zimbabwe and Afghanistan. All war torn, devastated, impoverished nations. These refugees are directing themselves to Britain because of the historical connection to the British Empire. (Can I just say that a great deal has already been said from this platform to underline the immensely beneficial contribution that immigrants make to Britain when they do arrive and are allowed to lead a normal life. I am focussing my attention elsewhere in the discussion but I would simply like to whole heartedly endorse those views and acknowledge the contribution to society that asylum seekers make). They are ordinary people fleeing war and life threatening destitution, exercising the right to live. Under globalisation the unfettered movement of capital requires the restricted movement of people. Until the great inequalities and injustices are addressed people will continue to seek asylum in a desperate bid to survive. We should uphold the rights of all those who do just that.

There is also another very important reason for us to counter the lies against asylum seekers. It concerns the very future of the political landscape here in Britain.

When I say that the treatment of asylum seekers is a disgrace, I am also referring to the system that metes out the treatment and the legislation that legitimises it. The anti-asylum legislation of this government and the Tories before it is a reflection of the corruption of British politics. Our present political system and this government are profoundly undemocratic, unaccountable and consistent in only one respect: protecting the interests of wealth and privilege.

The recent farcical aborted trial against former detainees after the Yarlswood fire illustrates the point. The trial brought about serious criticism of Group 4 by both the defence and the prosecution. But Group 4 which also runs many of our prisons for profit, and is the recipient of an 'investing in people award' from New Labour, is being protected by Beverley Hughes the minister for Citizenship and Immigration. In a House of Commons debate on Tuesday she resisted the calls by MPs for a public inquiry into the fire which put at risk 387 lives. It also became clear during the debate that the gross mismanagement of public money by Group 4 in the building of Yarlswood with millions unaccounted for, is also beyond scrutiny owing to commercial confidentiality guaranteed to private firms by government legislation. The role of the government minister in this debate was clearly to ensure that Group 4 will not be properly held to account.

The treatment of asylum seekers by Labour typifies a government which makes policy on the hoof, paying more attention to the press and opinion polls that to management of peoples needs. There is has been major asylum legislation passed in 1993, 1996, 1999 and 2002. Today's Scotland on Sunday reports that new legislation is being prepared for 2003/04. Why? Because the government has realised that alongside the war on Iraq, trust fund hospitals and tuition fees, asylum - if not the number one problem is the number one grievance affecting the opinion polls. David Blunkett who is way to the right of Oliver Letwin must come up with something more draconian than the Tory proposal to ship asylum seekers to deserted Scottish Isles in the Orkneys. New asylum legislation will feature in Labour party conference speeches. The newspapers are confident that the new legislation will reduce asylum procedure and restrict each case to one appeal. The result will be even more extreme measures contained in legislation that will give increasing powers to the Home Secretary and the executive of the government which will by-pass parliament and public bodies. In this sense asylum legislation is leading the way that other acts are following.

This is the action of a government that lacks political principle and courage. In the face of the media frenzy that can only be described as grotesque they capitulate. Never mind the facts. They fan the flames of racial hatred, fear and loathing. Thus asylum seekers become synonymous with terrorists, the Express can report as The Final Disaster that large influxes of asylum seekers are ruining the education of 'our children' or get away with claiming 'we live in fear of foreigners bringing death to our land through letting in too many germs.' All lies unchallenged.

Of course this government is in no position to upbraid anyone for not telling the truth. This government has lied in ways that no other government in living memory has lied. And with a General Election on the horizon we should prepare for the worst. Earlier this year a report, An Assessment of the Impact of Asylum Policies in Europe 1990-2000, commissioned by the government, was published. Beverley Hughes claimed that the study illustrated the effectiveness of government policy. There is nothing in black and white to substantiate these claims; in fact the opposite is the case. I call it lying, plain and simple.

Dr David Griffiths, one of the report’s authors, accused Hughes of attempting to use the research “to buttress government policies in a way which is illegitimate". The main conclusion of the report is that there is very little relationship between asylum policy and the number of people seeking asylum in any given country. Rather, the report concludes, with common sense, that the major factor is the political and economic situation in the countries from which asylum seekers are fleeing. Furthermore the report says there is “strong circumstantial evidence” that attempts to restrict entry is encouraging the growth of illegal people trafficking. The report highlights the fact that despite numerous policy initiatives in Europe throughout the 1990s the number of asylum claims has “consistently fluctuated between about 200,000 and 400,000 applications per annum.” The exception was 1991 and 1992, but the study attributes this almost wholly to the refugee crisis arising from the war in Yugoslavia. Fears of a ‘flood’ of asylum seekers entering the UK are entirely unsubstantiated by the report. As are the Labour’s claims for the effectiveness of stricter entry control. As has often been stated the first casualty of war is the truth.

Finally, we should oppose this government on its asylum because its policies are opening the door to the BNP.

On 14 August the BNP won a seat on Kirklees Council, their 17th nationally, in Heckmondwike, West Yorkshire. A 26 year old out-of-work forklift driver told the Guardian the BNP won because of the “Asians”. He went on to explain “I had a boss who put me out of work because they could get refugees and asylum seekers on the cheap.” Government policy of course denies asylum seekers the fundamental right to work while their claim is being processed. This policy is directly responsible for increasing illegal entry and creating a pool of cheap, often illegal labour. Thus both asylum seekers and the forklift driver are easily exploited. They are not on the same footing. But the government’s asylum policies reinforce the forklift driver's prejudices. The BNP is exploiting the situation very effectively indeed and they are using race to divide us. A brief glance at the Home Secretary's past remarks on the nature of being British and British culture illustrates the racism which underpins the government's asylum policy. We must not be divided.

So what do we have to do? Well Peace and progress has defined some very clear objectives. Today is a part of that. Our future symposium - also called One World, One People is a further step towards achieving these aims.

We believe:

We should close all detention centres immediately and repeal all the anti-asylum laws of the past decade. That is the minimum requirement.

But we also believe given the seriousness of the situation that we must go much further. This government has so totally forfeited the trust of the people it has no legitimacy. The post-war consensus I referred to earlier - that commitment to 'never again' enshrined in international law - is under threat. We need a government committed to defending the right to asylum and all democratic and human rights. We need a government committed to eradicating poverty. We need a government committed to peace and disarmament. We need a government of peace and progress. That begins with the next general election. We hope that all of us here today, all people of all faiths, political parties, charities, community groups and organisations, can continue to work together over the coming months and years to make that possible. Uniting all our strength to counter the lies against asylum seekers and provide all the physical and spiritual support we can give to them will make a vital contribution to that struggle.

Thank you.

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