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Courting the Hate Vote

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by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

Another two bite the dust. Following the earlier deaths of detained migrants in Britain, last Friday a 23-year-old Vietnamese asylum-seeker killed himself in the Dungavel immigration detention centre in Lanarkshire. And a week ago in Harmondsworth, west London, a 31-year-old eastern European was found hanging in his cell.

New Labour is not moved by such stories. How irritating that their end-of-term revels have been disturbed so by the great unwanted. The villains hang and cut themselves just to make a scene. This government will not waver. You saw how hard they have been on Iraq; now watch them getting even tougher on asylum. Their gritty policies will soon make Ann Widdecombe weep with pity. Stuff the causes of asylum - girlie, bleeding-heart talk. “We are resolute,” says the abrasive Blunkett, and his mates in the Cabinet cheer. They know millions of voters will thank them for the stand they take.

Britain?s economy thrives on the labour of its ex-colonial subjects, but rejects those who suffer from it?s post-colonial and capitalist legacies.

Britain?s economy thrives on the labour of its ex-colonial subjects, but rejects those who suffer from it?s post-colonial and capitalist legacies.

Four years ago, I left the Labour Party, mainly because I was sickened by the Government’s attitude to asylum-seekers. Jack Straw, then the Home Secretary, couldn’t understand my decision. But looking back now, those appear half-decent times for New Labour. I couldn’t have imagined this descent into moral corruption. Good people - Hillary Benn, Peter Hain, Oona King, Chris Mullin - fail to restrain the worst instincts of their government. They appear to have done nothing to hold the deceptive Blair to account or to argue the humanitarian case for the thousands of wretched people in need of refuge and a chance.

I have met many of them and touched their scars - long knife or machete lines, which seal up and look like ropes - cigarette burns, healed wounds on the inside of thighs. Men have shown me pictures of themselves without genitals, and women with their nipples sliced off.

Kamwaura Nygothi, an escapee from Kenya, wrote recently about the racism asylum-seekers suffer: “I was raped in Kenya and burnt with acid … I am experiencing suicidal feelings … I am made to feel as if I smell and there is zero tolerance for the non-existent smell of an asylum-seeker.”

Some new migrants in Britain avoid buses or trains because of panic attacks - triggered by memories of their journeys stuffed in the back of lorries with the weak dying along the way. Some are here because their families are slowly starving to oblivion. (I would break any law if this was happening to my loved ones. Wouldn’t you?) Others, it is true, are criminals involved in drug and people trafficking, but I have never seen any evidence that the majority are such people. Most just want to earn a little money so they can hold up their heads again.

Yet what malevolence is shown to these entrants by our hubristic government and ingratiating politicians. Listen to junior minister David Lammy, (himself the son of black immigrants): “The Government is not persuaded that victims of rape or torture, however defined, should be regarded as being in the category of vulnerable people.”

During the recent by-elections in the Midlands, New Labour activists allegedly tried to scare voters by warning them on doorsteps that Lib Dems were “soft on asylum”. (Thankfully they are, which is why so many of us will be voting for them in the next election).

The fast-track system that Blunkett has pushed through is infringing inviolable human rights. The Government knows it is sending people back to places that are unsafe. Concerned solicitors say they have no faith in this system. Dr John Ashworth, a former government chief scientist, laments the “negative” approach taken by this administration towards individuals who could be a real asset. In May, the Royal College of Midwives refused to inform on “illegal” women in labour. (An acquaintance, a midwife, has converted her garage to provide her services secretly for such women. I have been at a birth and witnessed the bitter tears of an 18-year-old homeless Congolese mother). At a conference held in the spring by Community Care magazine, social workers overwhelmingly rejected government plans to forcibly separate asylum-seeking children from their parents. I was on the platform with the Children’s minister Margaret Hodge who turned pale and said little in defence of these draconian measures.

Back to the two detention centres where the newest corpses of the hopeless were found. Anne Owers, the Inspector of Prisons, has reported that Harmondsworth is “unsafe” and that there are serious mental and self-harm problems. Journalists say some inmates have turned mute, hunger strikes are rife and individuals are held in isolation for more than 20 days.

Britons say we are tolerant, and hospitable, that we only do what we have to do because otherwise we will drown in this unstoppable human debris. Yet most refugees flood in to the poorest regions of the world. Chad today is coping with an influx of starving, petrified Africans from Darfur. They will not be put into detention centres or deported. Somehow, they will all cope through the painful times to follow. We may want to learn a little from that.

Published Monday, July 26th, 2004 - 01:52pm GMT

Article courtesy of The Independent

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