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Pity the poor immigrant

Don Flynn examines the debacle of Labour's immigration policy.

Over recent months, the British government has suffered one of the most difficult periods in its efforts to tackle the issue of immigration since the stormy days when Harold Wilson had to deal with Powellism in the 1960s. Until it was displaced by the aftermath of September 11, the media was full of reports about the Sangatte refugee centre in Calais and the continuing efforts of its residents to cross the Channel by any means possible.

UK policy has been publicly criticised by French ministers, who regard its asylum refugee regime as excessively liberal. One the other hand, four former detainees at the Oakington House asylum reception centre in Cambs almost suceeded in winning their case against the government for unlawful imprisonment and breach of their human rights. And to add to the situation, the Labour Party conference was poised to back the call for the scrapping of the universally condemned voucher system. No wonder Home Secretary David Blunkett recently announced to the world that he needed 'a pause for careful thought' on the future of UK immigration policy.

It will not comfort Blunkett to recall that his predecessor, Jack Straw, also commenced his period of office with a period of quiet reflection that resulted in the publication of a white paper, Fairer, Faster and Firmer: A modern approach to immigration and asylum. In this 60-odd-page discussion document the Home Office reviewed the record of its immigration control operation in recent years. Its frank conclusions - unavoidable given the avalanche of public criticism of the imploding Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) - was that the system was locked into a crisis in which delays and backlogs increased costs and undermined the 'integrity' of control. Further, it was beset with 'outdated and complex procedures that hinder genuine travellers and are vulnerable to abuse', and there was an absence of a strategic, overall approach to tackle underlying problems.

The White Paper's claim to comprehensiveness was enhanced by its attempt to locate its discussion on the problems of immigration control in a 'modern' context, which included the now obligatory genuflection to the benefits of immigration (Empire Windrush generation, Salt of the Earth, etc), and the rapid increase in international travel during the course of the 1990s. The upshot of all this was that, in future, immigration policy must be geared to the task of recognising and welcoming those with a 'genuine' case for admission to the UK, and dealing 'firmly' with the rest.

With these insights securely in place the government proceeded rapidly towards legislation, and within the year the first draft of the Immigration Asylum Bill was before Parliament. By far and away the biggest and most comprehensive of any of the immigration acts introduced since the first Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962, the bill as it was presented contained nearly 160 paragraphs divided into ten major sections. It was intended to cover everything - from the duty of marriage registrars to report suspicious marriages through to the rights to bail hearings for detained asylum seekers. Carriers liability was extended to allow for fines of 2,000 per immigrant for hapless lorry drivers who unwittingly brought stowaways in the backs of their vehicles. Rights of appeal for people threatened with deportation were removed - an apparently harsh measure that was intended to be mitigated by the creation of new appeal procedures on grounds of human rights.

The way was opened up for a more rational visa procedure, with the vignette placed in the lucky applicant's passport serving as a permission to enter the UK rather than merely to travel to a port of entry to apply for admission from an immigration officer. Bright sparks in the Home Office had even thought that a bond scheme, by which prospective travellers to Britain would be able to lodge a bond (the suggested amount was 10,000) as a guarantee of their eventual return home would be popular with settled Indian sub-continental communities. IND officials were rudely disabused of their belief that they were being helpful when the provisions for the bond scheme got the thumbs-down from just about everyone connected with Asian communities in the UK.

The war on refugees

But the parts of the bill that attracted the most interest - and concern - were those dealing with the position of asylum seekers: the on-average 50,000 people who had been arriving in the UK throughout the 1990s to apply for protection under the provisions of the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees. The plain fact was, and is, these people are and have been utterly detested by British governments ever since the mid-1980s - the time when it was becoming clear to all that the character of refugee movements within and to Europe was inexorably changing.

The movement of persecuted individuals was now more likely to consist of Kurds, battered and worn down by their treatment by Arab, Persian and Turkish regimes in the Middle East, than Czech intellectuals fed up at constant surveillance and having to earn their living in the manual trades. Amongst the others entering the broadening stream of would-be refugees were Kosovans, Sri Lankan Tamils, Somalians, Zairians, Sierra Leoneans and Afghans - all fleeing the nasty wars and ethnic persecutions that have proliferated in the post-cold war world. This was not how it was meant to be. Affected concern for the plight of the victims of oppressive regimes had ceased to have any strategic value once the governments that were perceived to be the leading perpetrators - basically the so-called 'Soviets' - had given up the contest for world domination.

From the standpoint of Whitehall (as well as Washington and the other centres of political power), no great issues of state revolved around the hard times suffered by people in far-off countries. For these new lords of the world, the Geneva Convention began to look strangely outmoded, a piece of clutter left around from the days of global liberalism and which, like the welfare state and the trade unions, really ought to be cleared away.

The Convention has, however, proven a much tougher nut for the governments of the west to crack than perhaps they thought it ever would. For one thing it showed its worth as an international humanitarian measure during the course of the Balkan wars that erupted after the collapse the Yugoslav Federal Republic in June 1991. Further, across the space of 50 years it has become enmeshed in a complex of national constitutional and human rights laws across Europe and North America. Within the European Union the Convention has the status of being a part of the acquis communitaure - the body of common laws that constitute the foundation of modern-day western liberalism. Regardless of its unpopularity with politicians - from Europe's Jack Straw and Jorge Haider through to Australia's refugee-hating John Howard - it will survive in some shape or form into the future.

Because of the entrenched character of refugee protection in international law, the British government has not had the option of unilaterally revoking the Geneva Convention, but it could make it as difficult as possible for asylum-seekers to obtain the benefit of its provisions. Since the Convention predicates the very notion of asylum on the ability of the refugee to escape from the country in which she fears persecution and to present themselves in the country where she seeks refuge, then the line of assault on asylum rights has been to keep them out of the country in the first place. Two instruments are available to governments to achieve these ends: the first is the use of pre-entry visa requirements; the second, carriers' liability legislation.

As far as the UK was concerned, the serious business of dividing the world into privileged non-visa countries, and all the rest, began in the mid-1980s when, for the first time, citizens of some Commonwealth countries became subject to visa controls. Initially it was the countries of the Indian sub-continent and Nigeria and Ghana in West Africa who were made to buckle down under this new burden. Prior to this date, visa requirements based on nationality were restricted to countries whose relationship with the UK at the governmental level was considered problematic. In the main this meant the Soviet-allied countries. Visas were conceived of as a mechanism for protecting national security interests rather than effecting immigration controls.

After 1984, this was radically changed. A visa requirement became a device for encumbering the would-be visitor with bureaucratic procedures designed to facilitate more effective control over their movements. The use of visas moved rapidly beyond the first group of south Asian and West African countries to include almost all the countries of Africa and low-income Asia.

Carriers' liability arose from legislation in 1987 which imposed the obligation on air and shipping lines to check the right of admission to the UK under the immigration regulations of all their passengers. In the event that an airline or ferry company was to carry a individual who did not have the correct form of visa, or was without a visa at all, the carrier would become liable to a fine which has rise to its present level of 2,000 per passenger. Critics of carriers' liability measures have complained that it requires non-expert air or ferry employees to take decisions on matters concerning UK immigration law and policy that they are not qualified to take. Further, these decisions, which had they been taken by a UK immigration official would usually be safeguarded with a right of appeal, are taken by carrier staff with little regard for human rights or the undesirability of discrimination on grounds of race.

With regard to asylum seekers, the combined effect of visa requirements and carriers' liability has been to shutdown all legal means of entering the UK. There are no provisions within the immigration rules for the issue of a visa for the purpose of obtaining asylum. If the would-be refugee needs a visa to travel to the UK then she must of necessity obtain one by fraudulent misrepresentation of the reasons for travel. Failing this, the asylum seeker's only practical alternative route for obtaining their rights under the Geneva Convention would be to smuggle themselves into the country in the back of a lorry or by blagging their way onto a Eurostar train. There is simply no other way for asylum seekers to enter the country.

Explaining Sangatte

The complacent view of successive governments has been that the reduction of options for legal travel to and admission into the country would have the effect of curtailing refugee movements. This expectation was based on the view that the majority of asylum seekers were chancers and opportunists primarily attracted to life in the UK because of the relative ease of entering and residing in the country. Raise the ante on that score, so the theory went, and most asylum seekers would melt away to pursue less arduous ways of sustaining life.

The ante certainly was raised, with asylum seekers being stripped firstly of their right to receive cash benefits whilst their applications were under consideration; and then the imposition of the compulsory dispersal scheme. But the hoped-for curtailment of asylum applications has not happened, and there is little sign of it ever happening.

Typically, asylum-seekers show less sign of being people who exercise free choice in a world of attractive opportunities, than being people who have remarkably few options other than to embark on a perilous journey crossing many national frontiers with very little assurance of a ultimately satisfactory outcome. In short, and this will surprise no one who has any conception of what it means to be, for example, an Iraqi Kurd or an Afghan of even modest pretensions to an independent outlook on life, the people stranded in Calais give the appearance of being very desperate people who are most decidedly not in control of their destinies.

With regard to the specific issue of the existence of Sangatte, this is best explained by the non-existence in France of any sort of reception system that either promises speedy consider of an asylum application, or an adequate system of welfare support for benighted refugees. As a matter of conscious policy, the immigration authorities in France will not register an application for asylum for six months until after the date it has been lodged by the asylum seeker. As a consequence of not being recognised as an asylum seeker during that period, the would-be refugee has no entitlement to social welfare assistance or of access to employment. Those with family and friends already resident in France may rely on their charity to see them through this initial bleak period. But the rest might just as well hitch up to Calais to join their brethren in an effort to reach a country that has at least committed itself to considering asylum applications from day one, and giving some form of welfare support, albeit in the controversial form of vouchers, to those in urgent need.

Sending back a message.

This brings us to the tricky question of the voucher scheme, administered by the Home Office's NASS (National Asylum Support Scheme) agency. Condemned by just about everyone from the Audit Commission through to the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Churches' Commission for Racial Justice, NASS administers a budget of over 700 million a year which typically provides for the support of around 22,000 asylum seekers and their families at any one time. At around 30,000 a year for each asylum seeking-household this seems generous - until it is considered that the amount that finds its way to the hapless refugee is a worth a mere 46.54, of which 10 is paid in cash. This is less than 70% of the amount paid in means-tested social security benefits to the UK's indigenous poor.

Further, a condition for receiving even this assistance is the requirement to submit to a policy of dispersal to parts of the country that are frequently very poorly resourced in terms of providing the sort of practical support of which refugees are often in need.

Accounts of harassment and intimidation abound amongst asylum seeker communities established by dispersal on run-down council estates in towns like Hull, Newcastle and Liverpool. The murder of the 22 year old Kurd Firsat Yildiz on the Sighthill estate on the outskirts of Glasgow at the beginning of August fort the moment stands as the grimiest statistic in the dispersal record, but we can be sure that many other accounts of misery are contained therein.

But what is the logic of the government's instance on maintaining this grossly inefficient and hugely expensive apparatus in the face of extensive criticism? It cannot be that they thought the system would basically turn out well once it was up and running. Newspaper accounts of divisions amongst Home Office ministers back in 1998, when the NASS was first being designed, suggest that the most astute of the triumvirate - Mike O'Brien - was opposed to the voucher scheme and sceptical that it would turn out well. The truth is that a well-functioning system operating to provide for the welfare of asylum seekers was probably not a priority for Straw and his senior policy makers anyway. Reports of discussions amongst high-ups at this time are full of references to ensuring that the treatment of asylum seekers in the UK would send 'a strong message' to refugees that it wasn't worth thinking of coming to Britain.

But even with the accounts of misery amongst dispersed refugee communities across the land, the message, it seems, just hasn't been strong enough. The IND is expecting that the final figure for asylum applications in the UK for the current year will be in the region of 80,000 people. This just doesn't seem to match up to the theory that the majority of asylum seekers are attracted to the UK by the lure of a comfortable life on benefits. The benefits available have nose-dived over the period when the numbers seeking asylum have spiralled upwards. Deterrence has not worked, and in the post 11 September world, it is clear that political instability and their effects - consecutive refugee crises - can only be adequately addressed by co-ordinated action on a global scale. It is difficult to see how Britain and the wider anti-terror coalition can continue to support both the bombing of Afghanistan and at the same time deny sanctuary to refugees from such a regime - whether they are scaling the fences of Eurotunnel or struggling to reach the shores of Australia. Surely the case for refugee protection is actually stronger then ever before.

There is some evidence that Blunkett's pause for reflection has taken on board some of the arguments that have long been made about the deeper causes of refugee movements and other forms of forced migration. However, this is tempered with the enduring belief that this is a situation that can be "managed" into insignificance provided decisions are made promptly and those who fail to qualify are immediately deported - in large, media friendly numbers. Unfortunately his knee-jerk response to the Sangatte furore - agreeing with both his French counterpart that the UK operates an unacceptably welcoming asylum reception policy - continues to spill over into policy making, where the need to be seen to be tough and uncompromising is a prime consideration. It is this very consideration that constantly undermines the prospect of setting up a fair and impartial system,which creates constant confusion and which lends undeserved credibility to all kinds of half-baked schemes that no-one believes will actually work. His announcement on the future of the asylum system, while having some positive aspects (in relation to the iniquities of the current system) continues in its emphasis on deterrence, control, and speedy deportation as the key objectives - playing to the agenda of the Daily Mail once again.

Fortunately, human rights considerations and the legal protection that this has introduced might have the salutary effect of emphasising that there are proper limits placed on how far a government might go in the direction of naked repression and denial of human rights.

The migratory elite

The complex nature of the issues that have to be considered in any 'modern' immigration policy - as though human rights was not enough - is further illustrated by the discovery in recent years of a powerful imperative promoting economic migration. It must seem ironic to the thousands of asylum seekers stuck in camps, detention centres and queues all over Britain and Europe, who are regularly told that they are nothing but economic migrants in disguise, to find out that it is actually quite a good thing to be an economic migrant.

The former immigration minister, Barbara Roche, said as much in a contribution to a conference of the Institute for Public Policy Research in September 2000. She intimated that, henceforth, immigration policy will serve a national interest that is driven by the needs of British companies to recruit the best workers in competitive, global labour markets. In the months preceding this speech, Blunkett and Margaret Hodge, then respectively Secretary of State and Minister of State at the Department for Education and Employment (and as such responsible for administering the work permit scheme), had cut a swathe through the bureaucracy and red tape that had previously dominated and produced a system that allowed much more rapid recruitment by UK-based firms of foreign workers.

So enamoured was Blunkett of his role as the champion of the employer in this area that he took work permits with him from his old department and set up a shiny new 'Work Permit UK' agency within IND at the Home Office. The authorities then announced that they expected to recruit 150,000 new workers from abroad during the course of 2001. Bear in mind that work permit workers are allowed to be accompanied by dependants in their immediate family, and the number of people who enter the UK by this route could easily be as high as 250,000, ie four-fifths of the total. People who talk about 'floods' of refugees should be chastened by the fact that economic migration is and always has been the major route to entry and settlement in the UK.

The economic migrant has many champions - some of whom might seem surprising. The Economist featured a startling front-page for its 31st March issue - hands gripping the wire fence of a detention centre behind the demand 'Let the huddled masses in'. In its feature article supporting this proclamation, the newspaper argued;

.there are compelling moral and economic arguments why more people from poor countries should be allowed to move to rich ones. [.] History has shown that immigrants bring ideas, vigour and ambition, as well as their mere labour.

Should we then make the possession of ideas, vigour and ambition the key to the right to migrate in the modern world? If so, who would judge that the applicant for a visa exhibited these qualities in sufficient abundance to merit the grant of privileges as an immigrant? Surely not the officials who have presided over the chaos that has prevailed in the immigration control system for the last decade or more.

The people who have managed to manufacture crisis in just about every area of policy, and who have got all issues of importance during this period - from East African Asians, to Bangladeshi (and other) family reunification, right up to the modern disaster with regard to asylum policy - one hundred percent wrong simply should not be entrusted with the sophisticated task of judging the merits of an economic migrant application.

In this respect Blunkett and Barbara Roche were right to initiate reforms that edged out their own officials in respect of decision-making as much as possible, in favour of responding directly to the needs of the employers who want to employ migrant workers.

The system that has been taking shape over the course of the last 18 months is one in which migrant workers holding qualifications roughly of the level of the UK Higher National Diploma, and who have received offers of employment, can usually obtain work permits with a reasonable degree of efficiency. The work permits are valid for a period of up to five years, after which the worker can apply for a regular 'settled' status and are then free to continue their residence in the UK indefinitely. Members of the immediate family (spouse and children up to the age of 18) are permitted to join the worker provided they can demonstrate that there are sufficient resources coming into the household to prevent it becoming 'a burden on public funds'.

The rationality of this approach seems clear enough. The workers needed by UK-based employers are admitted with minimum fuss, and Britain benefits from the goods they produce or services they provide, plus the direct and indirect taxes they pay. The social costs of supporting the immigrant are held to a minimum - going only so far as the cost of providing schooling to those with children and the provision of health services. There are real reasons for welcoming the progress this government has made in freeing-up some aspects of its controls on economic migration, but there are also still some areas of concern.

The plight of asylum seekers

The most immediate and pressing of these concerns are the intention of the government to exclude asylum seekers from the possibility of being accepted as economic migrants. This situation has arisen somewhat perversely from the fact that the Home Office is still convinced that the overwhelming majority of asylum seekers are economic migrants who have chosen to enter the UK by irregular means in order to 'jump the queue.' That they are people who would like to lead a normal life supporting themselves and their families by way of gainful employment is not in dispute - but surely this legitimate desire does not exclude them form the possibility of also being legitimate refugees with a genuine fear of suffering persecution in their countries of origin.

One good indication of their plight must surely be their countries of origin. Examination of the countries from which asylum seekers came in one fairly typical month at the beginning of this year show that the top ten were Iraq, with 755 applicants, Iran (585), Sri Lanka (570), Afghanistan (510), Somalia (500) Turkey (310), Yugoslavia (270), Pakistan (215), Romania (165) and Albania (150). In short, just about where the average regular reader of reasonably a well-informed broadsheet newspaper would expect genuine asylum seekers to come from.

The Home Office, however, operates with an incredible view of the world in which un- and under-employed foreigners are just waiting for the excuse provided by a military coup or the suppression of opposition parties, trade unions or newspapers to jump the next airline and get across to the UK. From this standpoint, the prospect of US carpet-bombing Afghanistan or Mugabe consolidating his grip on power in Zimbabwe are viewed with trepidation by IND officials on the grounds that this will present just the sort of opportunity that scroungers have been looking for all this time.

It seems scarcely credible that anyone would expect to find that amongst the asylum seekers of these countries the primary motivation for migration was the desire for a better job. Far better to go with common sense on this one, and work with the reasonable assumption that we are essentially dealing with people who are in need of protection - though if a job comes their way they would gratefully accept it. This means establishing a bridge between being an asylum seeker and the world of work, across which people should be able to move as soon as it becomes clear that they have a legitimate claim.

It is not as if benefits would not derive all round from the employment of many people now caught up in the utter misery of dispersal and subsistence on the inadequate allowance of the voucher scheme. The trade journal for human resource managers Personnel Today, launched a Campaign for Refugees in Employment in July this year, calling for, amongst other things, a 'skills database' of asylum seekers, and 'concrete plans' to co-ordinate their employment. But of the major political parties, only the Liberal Democrats offer a whisper of compassion to asylum seekers - suggesting they should be allowed to seek work if their applications have not be finally determined after three months.

EU initiatives

But if we really want examples of radical thinking on immigration issues, we have to cross the Channel, turn north at the Sangatte reception centre, and proceed on to Brussels and the offices of the European Commission. Since November 1999, when the European Council adopted a commitment to the harmonisation of immigration and asylum policies across Europe in the Finnish city of Tampere, the Commission has been working on a series of proposals for policies and laws that would go some way to untangling the mess of prejudice and narrow-mindedness that currently prevails. Amongst these is a proposal for policies on the admission of migrant workers to member states. What the Commission advocates is simple and straightforward - namely that a worker should be admitted to any member state where he or she is able to produce evidence of an offer of employment from an employer for a position that has been advertised as vacant for a period of at least 28 days without producing a suitable candidate from amongst the registered labour force. The position must be remunerated in accordance with the wage legislation of the country concerned and at a level sufficient to meet the needs of the worker and his/her dependants without the necessity of recourse to welfare benefits.

A worker admitted on this basis will be issued with a 'EC worker residence permit' which will be valid for a period of four years, during which time he/she will be allowed to change employer, but only for employment in the same category of that of the original employment on which they were given permission to enter. After four years the worker will be given an open residence permit that will allow access to any category of employment. After five years, in accordance with another proposed directive, the worker will be issued with a residence permit that will allow a full right of employment in any member state of the EU - thus extending a right of free movement on a par with people holding citizenship of a member state.

This is an approach to immigration policy that will commend itself to anyone who thinks that this sort of thing will be better organised if everyone - immigrants and national authorities alike - was able to operate within the context of clear rules that embody mutual rights and obligations on the part of all the bodies involved. Unfortunately, this is not how the current Labour government sees the situation, preferring, as it does, to maintain an approach to immigration control based on the principle that the state has absolute discretion to decide who crosses its frontiers, and the immigrant has no 'rights' in any meaningful sense of the term at all.

The tradition of control

The tradition of the state maintaining absolute authority in respect of the admission of foreigners is of surprisingly recent lineage. From the 17th century onwards, national governments typically inclined towards a mercantilist approach to dealing with foreigners - presuming that the interests of trade and commence required free access to all individuals. The right to safe refuge is even older, having been discussed as fundamental to the behaviour of civilised nations by the Roman jurist Cicero in the final century of the pagan era. Cromwell's decision to abolish the bans on the admission and residence of Jews and 'blackamoors' that had been in place since the reign of Elizabeth II, settled the question in favour of a relatively liberal, bourgeois, world outlook in which interference with free commerce could only be justified on grounds of a narrowly defined concept of national security.

The modern world got its first taste of generalised immigration controls - directed against a species of foreigner because of inherent characteristics derived from its nature, (rather than because, as might arise in a situation of war or threatened war, because of the imperatives of a historical conjuncture) in the late 19th century at a time of movement of people within the great dynastic regimes of central and eastern Europe. Passports were first elaborated during this period to control the movements of people within the multi-national empires of the Romanovs and Hapsburgs. The eruption of tensions in these imperial regimes projected some of the denizens of empire far beyond its borders - with the flight of Jews from pogrom being only the best-known example. This new Jewish diaspora was greeted in the UK by with the first immigration control legislation of the modern period - the 1905 Aliens Act.

Whilst gross in its anti-semitic symbolism, the impact of the Act as a practical control measure was fairly limited, with around 4,000 poor Jews, travelling steerage class, being refused entry in the years immediately after its enactment. The idea that there was a class of people inherently undesirable as fellow inhabitants germinated surprisingly slowly across the subsequent decades, really only coming into its own in the 1960s with the movement to control immigration from the countries of the black Commonwealth.

At this point a new doctrine was enunciated which seemed to have the authority of the ages behind it almost as soon as it was spoken out loud - namely, that the state had the right to control movement across its borders, and might adopt at its discretion any measure necessary to accomplish this end. The 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act chose to shackle the movement of un-and semi-skilled migrant workers from the Caribbean.

The 1968 Act overturned the presumption that had hitherto existed in the law of all nations that citizens had a right to enter and reside in the country of their citizenship - with the citizens disadvantaged by the measure being East African Asian UK passport holders. By 1971 the government completed the movement towards the establishment of its untrammelled discretion in the place of rights, by empowering the Secretary of State for the Home Office to make whatever regulations he wished exactly as he saw fit to hold the (usually black) foreigner at bay.

And herein lies the issue that Blunkett really ought to reflect most deeply on. Nothing that was done by the Labour government in either its White Paper of 1998 or its Immigration and Asylum Act of 1999 that has really challenged the view that national governments hold more or less absolute sway over who enters and who resides in the territories that they rule.

The recent flexing of the muscle of the Human Rights Act in relation to immigration issues (namely the High Court set-back in the matter of detention policy at the so-called Oakington Reception Centre) has actually been limited in scope and certainly does not extend to acknowledgement of anything resembling a human right to migrate. On the contrary, this government has maintained the assault of the last two decades on the one area of migration rights - i.e. to flee persecution as a refugee - which have been enshrined in international law and therefore appeared to be of universal application. In reality, the use of visa policies and carriers liability legislation has been rendered the right to asylum a concept devoid of all real content.

The adoption of a relatively more liberal approach to economic migration during the past few years has not in any way conflicted with the outlook in place since the 1960s that says that the state has absolute power in relation to the movement of people. Okay, so the long-term boom conditions of the world economy have generated labour shortages in the metropolitan countries; but what happens, as now seems increasingly likely, when boom turns to bust and the jobs given to high-flying migrant workers begin to dry up? Will the UK government revert to its implicit view that, having turned on the tap for the supply of immigration these last two years, they can now turn it off, and deprive people of their built-up expectations of a life in their new countries?

The answer is rights for workers

For the supporters of migrant workers, the struggle for rights is part and parcel of the struggle for the humanisation of abstract global markets. There is an urgent need to counter the authority of global firms and corporations, national states and indifferent governments, with the imperative of real life as it is lived by the inhabitants of the planet. In the case of migrant workers, we have an opportunity to do this which does not in itself imply the maximalist demand of the dissolution of globalisation, but rather the transitional position that the ways in which power and authority is exercised in the world changes in order that new forces and new people be allowed to come in from the margins.

For all their own undoubted difficulties, the positions being argued for in respect of immigration policy within the institutions of the EU mark a step forward from the lawless bullying and callous disregard of the rights of others on the part of national governments.

Those of us who are taking this debate up in the UK have to acknowledge the fact that the position of the Labour government with regard to immigration and asylum issues is amongst the worst in the European Union. On every issue of importance, representatives of the Whitehall powers are found arguing for the most sweeping restrictions, the toughest controls, and the least scope for rights for individuals. And if they don't get their way on this reactionary agenda, the UK government will simply exercise the power it bought for itself under its opt-out protocol to the Amsterdam treaty. In this way, if the rest of the EU does decide to move in a progressive direction on any one issue concerning the rights of workers or refugees, it's a safe bet that the British government will limit its effect on people who would otherwise benefit in this country by opting out of the measure.

The way forward?

We have argued that the crisis of immigration policy that besets nations from northern Europe to the antipodes is a problem created by the way in which market economies have developed over the course of the last century, and the way in which power is exercised by governments and other authorities. But though a product of capitalism, it is also a problem which in principle, has the possibility of an eminently capitalist solution. That is, let workers and bosses do as they must in the context of the new global markets. Let people move to where the jobs are, and let them negotiate the best contracts of employment they can given the balance of power as it is in the labour market at the relevant time. If problems arise, and division amongst groups of workers threaten to erupt as racism, well we've been there before and we can hope that by now the trade unions and democratic parties no how to fight that ugly old toad when it emerges from under the rocks.

Four years after the election of the Labour government and now well into its second term, the scope for a genuine modernisation of immigration and refugee policy remains vast. Whether we go in that direction depends upon the extent to which Blunkett, after his quiet reflection on the mess we are in at present, is prepared to recognise that immigration policies which act in contempt of the rights of workers and refugees will not ever work and thoroughly deserve to be pitched into the dustbin of history.

 

November/December 2001