Drowning in a sea of racism

Jewish Socialists’ Group statement on the Illegal Immigration Act

Drowning in a sea of racism

The government is relentlessly ramping up its incendiary attacks on migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, and is extending its harassment to the lawyers defending them. As Jewish Socialists who remember our recent history as a migrant and refugee people, persecuted and scapegoated by the racists, we stand in solidarity with migrants in the spotlight today, including those risking their lives crossing the Channel in overcrowded, unseaworthy boats. We know from our history that no community can withstand such hostility alone, and this gives us a bond with migrants and refugees today. Nor has antisemitism gone away: antiracists must challenge all forms of racism with the same vigour. 

Some of our community’s experiences have been uncannily similar to those of today’s migrants. In August 1939 two German Jews fleeing the Nazis, Walter Altmann and Gunther Mann, left Ostend in Belgium in a 10-foot dinghy to row across the Channel to England. They hit bad weather, were rescued by a lifeboat and landed at Deal in Kent. They both told the authorities they would rather have drowned at sea than be sent back to the Continent. Nevertheless, they were deported to Ostend where they had permits to stay until the end of that month. We don’t know their fate.

As we fight the latest attacks, we recognise elements of many recent struggles. Despite campaigns against the British state’s refusal to give welfare support to migrants – the policy of “no recourse to public funds” – the destitution this causes remains the everyday reality of migrant life.

We have to fight each attack as it comes and do our best to protect those who are targeted, but we also have to challenge the entire inhuman system that generates these attacks. Immigration controls are discriminatory and racist in their essence. They define a person as “illegal” because of where they or their parents were born, the colour of their skin, the language they speak, what they believe or whether or not they are deemed to have “British values”.

The government’s latest measures have moved into new territory. The Rwanda Plan, followed by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak declaring the slogan “Stop the small boats” to be one of his five election pledges, shifted their attacks on migrants up a gear. And before the ink was dry on the 2022 Nationality and Borders Act, the Tories rushed to push the Illegal Immigration Bill through Parliament.

The centrepiece of this Act is that people cannot claim asylum if they come by an “illegal” route. Since the only people who can come by a legal route are from Hong Kong, Ukraine and Afghanistan, this means that no one else can claim asylum. Despite the promise of safe passage for Afghans, the first 39 migrants to be incarcerated on the Bibby Stockholm barge were from Afghanistan, and they were only taken off the barge because of an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease.  

This is effectively the abolition of asylum in the UK. The Act allows the government to warehouse asylum seekers on barges and in barracks and then deport them to a third country without any legal challenge, whatever the circumstances. Amongst other effects, this fatally undermines the anti-slavery legislation. The organisations that have worked with the government to prevent modern slavery have been double-crossed.

The Act roughly doubles the surcharge on migrants applying for visas and/or the right to remain, and this money is being used to finance pay rises for public sector workers in a cynical attempt to divide and rule.

Suella Braverman tries to justify all this, claiming that it is saving lives by defeating the people traffickers. But it’s the absence of safe legal routes and the refusal to recognise the situation of refugees that keeps the traffickers in business.

Football pundit Gary Lineker was right to raise alarm about the fascistic use of language towards refugees. We hear immigration being described as an “invasion”; the Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party, who was a former Labour Councillor, has said asylum seekers should “Fuck off back to France.” The demonisation campaign against “lefty lawyers”, which comes from the highest echelons of government, is also fascistic. Indeed, the policies themselves have a fascistic tone. This does not mean that the government is actually fascist, but by blurring boundaries between mainstream and far-right ideas, they normalise fascist ideas. This prepares the ground for a real fascist resurgence.

The Labour Party has refused to meet the challenge. Instead, they have sniped at the government from the right for being “incompetent” and “inefficient” in dealing with the backlog of asylum claims and failing to meet their targets.

The challenge to this fascistic turn needs an alliance built from the grassroots up, with migrant organisations at its core and strong involvement from the trades unions. The longer-established minority communities who faced such hostility when they arrived in this country have a crucial part to play. The Jewish Socialists’ Group will do all that we can to help build that movement.

• We call on wider elements in the Jewish community and its institutions to commit to this fight, drawing on our own experience and history as migrants and refugees.

• We call on the Labour Party to adopt a principled opposition to government plans on asylum – an opposition founded on compassion for human beings and a commitment to ending the Hostile Environment.

• We recognise that the government’s policies are not a British aberration but are part of a pattern of similar policies that make up Fortress Europe. We call on the Jewish community, other minorities and the antiracist movement to strengthen their internationalist campaigns against border controls and the demonisation of migrants and refugees wherever they seek sanctuary.

No human being is illegal!

Posted: 20 August 2023