Who is it that is actually being submerged?

David Rosenberg spoke at a vigil to remember the 32 refugees who drowned in the English Channel a year ago on 24th November 2021. This is what he said. The vigil was organised by Care4Calais, TUC and Stand Up To Racism.

Who is it that is actually being submerged?

Enoch Powell warned of “rivers of blood”. Margaret Thatcher and Labour’s David Blunkett spoke of Britain’s towns being “swamped”. Former UKIP MEP Diana James feared the  “floodgates would open”.

As far back as 1902, around the time my grandparents arrived in the East End as child migrants and refugees, from Polish and Ukrainian Jewish families, the Bishop of Stepney accused Jews of “swamping whole areas once populated by English people”.

And the Bishop found his views echoed in some local newspapers, one of which had a regular strapline on its reporting of immigration issues. It was titled “The Foreign Flood.”

Britain’s so-called immigration “debate’’, has long suffered from a deluge of water metaphors that play on people’s deepest existential fears.

And while the comfortable, the secure, the privileged, the well looked after, casually and cynically throw their water metaphors around, who is it that is actually being submerged? The answer is: human beings, seeking a place of safety from war, persecution, discrimination, climate catastrophe. They are the ones who are drowning.

Exactly one year ago this was “news” to many people here in Britain, because it happened to 32 refugees close to home – in the English Channel. But nearly 30,000 human beings have died in similar horrific circumstances in the Mediterranean in the last 10 years.

People here from Jewish organisations – Jewish Socialists’ Group, Jewish Voice for Labour – know from our own families and communities what it means to have experienced an earlier hostile environment in the early 1900s, and when refugees sought to win asylum here in the 1930. Most of those applications were ignored. That is why we give unconditional solidarity to the families of those who drowned and to those who are seeking asylum today.

Your fight is our fight too.

And if there are any bright spots in this scenario they can be found in the local groups of anti-racists that have been formed in coastal communities in recent years, who are organising to provide a welcome and give immediate support to those who successfully reach Britain’s shores.

In this regard it is very significant that the TUC is sponsoring this vigil, this demonstration of support for refugees. You may be surprised to know how long this position has been fought for. Three times in 1890s the TUC passed policy for immigration controls. At the 1895 Congress Jewish trade unionists organised a challenge and distributed a pamphlet, with support from non-Jewish socialists and trade unionists, called “Voice from the Aliens”. In the very week in which the leader of the Labour party earned fulsome praise from Nigel Farage for the stance he said Labour was now taking on migrant workers, the words of this pamphlet ought to echo very clearly:

“We, the Jewish workers, have been spoken of as a blighting blister upon the English trades and workers … were it not for us … the native worker would … have plenty of work, good wages … Well, let us … examine the condition of such workers with whom the Jew never comes in contact … the agricultural labourer, the docker, the miner… the chainmaker, shipbuilder, bricklayer and many others … and answer: is there any truth in the remark that we are a “blighting blister” upon the English worker?”

It concluded by calling on workers not to be “misled by some leaders who have made it their cause to engender a bitter feeling … against the workers of other countries. Rather harken to the voices of such leaders as will foster a feeling of international solidarity among the working people”. It urged them to “combine against the common enemy rather than fight against us whose interests are identical with theirs.”

This is the spirit that we, as Jewish socialists inherit, and assertively promote today to refugees and migrant workers – to all who are, and have been, impacted by the Hostile Environment that was proudly declared by Theresa May at Tory Conference in 2012.  A Hostile Environment whose direct victims include the 32 drowned refugees of one year ago; Caribbean families devastated by the Windrush Scandal; migrants and refugees blamed every day by the right-wing press for all manner of problems; and the migrant workers now being blamed again by opportunist politicians for low pay and bad conditions.

I think we all know where we should be directing our anger, and where we should be extending the hand of solidarity!

No one is illegal!

Author: david rosenberg  |   Posted: 25 November 2022