Transport and General Workers' Union General Secretary Bill Morris has condemned the Government's moves against asylum seekers for "giving life to the racists" and for helping to create a "climate of fear". But the unions must do more.
By Stan Crooke
The system under which refugees are given vouchers, valid only for certain goods in certain shops and without change being given, was condemned by Morris as "degrading, divisive and stigmatising"
Morris's attack was supported by Bob Purkiss, Chair of the TUC Race Relations Committee, and by TUC General Secretary John Monks. A TUC statement issued shortly afterwards condemned the scapegoating of asylum-seekers and called for them to be treated with "support, help and sympathy, not prejudice and suspicion".
In March, the TUC Women's Conference voted unanimously in favour of a motion from the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy calling for the scrapping of the voucher scheme and the forced dispersal of asylum-seekers, and for increased financial support for asylum-seekers.
The July meeting of the National Executive Committee of the Communication Workers' Union adopted policy calling for "the repeal of the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act and a government review of the proper rights and support that is needed for asylum-seekers".
Addressing May Day rallies in Glasgow and Edinburgh earlier this year, Scottish TUC General Secretary Bill Spiers condemned Labour's anti-asylum laws and suggested that the STUC might organise a network of trade unionist "buddies" for newly arrived asylum-seekers. Although this idea seems to have been dropped, the STUC will soon be launching an appeal for financial and material support for asylum-seekers in order to compensate for the inadequacies of the less-than-poverty-level voucher system.
Some unions have carried articles in their magazines challenging the myths about asylum-seekers which have been peddled by the media and politicians. The current issue of TGWU Record, for example, carries a double-page spread based on a briefing paper issued by the Refugee Council. That is the encouraging climate at the top of the unions.
At a rank-and-file level, also, activists have organised to counter the media lies.
The recent jump in the number of people begging and busking on the London Underground has provoked debate about asylum-seekers amongst Underground workers. The RMT London Underground Regional Council has produced a leaflet for members in defence of asylum rights.
When a small group of drivers on the Heathrow Airport train service produced a newsletter ("The Pickwick Papers") which verged on the racist in its attacks on asylum-seekers, the local RMT and ASLEF united in condemnation of the bulletin - and management's collusion in allowing it to be circulated.
But, overall, campaigning is still shamefully inadequate.
At July's Labour National Policy Forum, supporters of the Grassroots Alliance moved a motion calling for an end to the policy of "dispersing" refugees around the country and to the voucher scheme. It gained only 15 votes - with apparently none of the unions voting for it (votes are not recorded), and certainly none of the big unions.
Instead, the unions backed a much softer motion from the TGWU calling for a review of the new legislation, and of the voucher scheme in particular. In the warped world of trade union bureaucrats this is known as "boxing clever". Rather than oppose something directly, call for a review. It is a cop-out.
UNISON, a union with an impressive record on running local anti-deportation campaigns to defend members facing removal from the UK, has policy against vouchers and dispersal. But it refused to support the demonstration in support of asylum rights held in London in June this year on the grounds (true, but not decisive) that the Committee to Defend Asylum-Seekers, which called the demonstration, was a front for the Socialist Workers' Party. The scale of the job we face was illustrated in Dawn Neeson's column in the Daily Star (27 July): "Loved the story this week about a bunch of Romanian gipsy (sic) family ponces - sorry, asylum-seekers - who were forced to flee Glasgow for London because of racial abuse.
"It's not often the Scots and English agree on anything much these days, but I'd just like to say cheers to all those Jocks concerned. I know it's not helpful, responsible or politically correct. Tough.
"If they don't like it, they can always go home, can't they."
The fact that a national newspaper openly applauds asylum-seekers being driven out of their homes by racial abuse epitomises the rabid witch-hunting atmosphere whipped up by the New Labour and Tory scapegoating of asylum-seekers.
When Labour came to power, the new Home Office Minister, Mike O'Brien, pledged that the word "bogus" would no longer be used in conjunction with the term "asylum-seeker". But O'Brien himself, along with Jack Straw, Paul Boateng, Barbara Roche and Tony Blair, has continued to do just that.
According to the current issue of the magazine of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, "Jack Straw has attended numerous public meetings and said openly that he's never seen a 'genuine' asylum-seeker".
Straw's latest crackpot idea to keep asylum-seekers out of Britain is to force them to apply for asylum abroad (but where exactly?) and then to allow in only those who have been officially recognised as refugees.
Senior Labour politicians also have been briefing the media off the record that Britain is taking in too many asylum-seekers because British judges are too liberal (!) in their interpretation of the United Nations Convention on Refugees. They have described some of their judgements as "crazy".
But, however much Labour capitulates to the racists' agenda, it is not enough for the Tories.
Although nearly a thousand asylum-seekers are now detained, although Labour has just opened a new detention centre in Cambridgeshire to house another 400, and although Labour is preparing to build three more detention centres for asylum-seekers - this is not enough for the Tories. They demand that all asylum-seekers should be detained!
Defence of asylum-seekers by trade union members must combine winning unions at a national level to support for repeal of Labour's anti-asylum laws with challenging prejudice at a local level and supporting local asylum rights campaigns.
If this is not done then the bilious deluge of anti-asylum scapegoating flooding out from the media and politicians will overwhelm sections of the labour movement itself.