New Internationalist

No room at the inn

Issue 350

Racism underpins current attitudes towards refugees and asylum seekers – and a precious heritage is being lost, writes Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.

Dominic Ridley, Lorena Ros / STILL PICTURES www.stillpictures.com / SOUTHERN GATE
In limbo: refugees contemplate and await their fate. Dominic Ridley, Lorena Ros / STILL PICTURES www.stillpictures.com / SOUTHERN GATE

People attending a Holocaust Memorial Day in London in 2001 will never forget the appearance on stage of Kemal Pervanic, the once-emaciated Bosnian Muslim seen on the news looking through barbed wire in the Serb-built Omarska concentration camp.

He spoke evocatively in English about what he had been made to suffer, but this was not the same man who had been broken by starvation and humiliation. His smart suit, beautifully groomed long hair and supreme confidence symbolized the vital reclamation of a lost life. He fled to the UK in 1993 and is now a science graduate. Britain gave him a future, by letting him come here as a refugee. It is what European countries used to do.

Populist anti-immigration politicians now in the ascendancy across Europe are destroying this precious heritage and have embarked on a concerted project which will create a white Fortress Europe rejecting and ejecting desperate people who are not white or Christian. These leaders may pretend that they are responding to ‘illegal’ immigrants but it is pernicious racism and xenophobia which is animating their zeal and policies.

The assertion is easily proved. Where is the hysteria in Europe about white South Africans and white Zimbabweans who flood into the continent? They end up in top jobs and yet they are not resented or despised. Spain, so troubled that immigrants are rushing in, ignores the destruction of the Spanish national character by English immigrants on the south coast who do not integrate and who have criminals and anti-social exiles nestling in their enclaves. Politicians and others may claim that they are concerned about immigration and ‘culture’ but this latest flare-up is all about white panic brought about by the knowledge that most of the world’s refugees at present are Muslims and are black or brown.

In Britain in 1997 only 0.18 per cent of applications from Australian visitors were denied. The figure for Ghanaians was 30 per cent. Almost all US citizens requesting settlement rights in the Britain were granted these rights but 30 per cent of Indians failed to acquire residency.

Those who temporarily make it are left in no doubt that they are unwanted. At a school in London this is a poem I heard recited by refugee children.

Sorry
Sorry that we are here
That we take your time
Sorry
Sorry that we breathe in your air
That we walk on your ground
That we stand in your view
Sorry
That my name is not David
Or Catherine
Or Mary
But Rushed
And Hotly…
And sorry that we brought nothing
The only thing we have is a story
Not even a happy story.

European Jews should know this well. In 1888 the Manchester City News wrote about Jews escaping pogroms in Eastern Europe: ‘Their unclean habits, their wretched clothing and miserable food enables them to perpetuate existence upon a pittance… they have flooded the market with cheap labour.’ In 1905 the Aliens Act was passed by politicians eager to placate these prejudices. Some 1,378 Jews were deported soon after. In 1938 the Express riled against an ‘influx of Jews… who are overrunning the country’.

‘Carriers of chaos’

MC – the name appears Kurdish – sends me this email: ‘I have no chance of warding off the emotional tauntings and assaults of some peer groups of white guys… How should I act in this situation and continue preserving my self-esteem and not start behaving like them? I have been beaten and called “fucking Paki”.’

Every week I get a number of such desperate e-mails from asylum seekers who obviously use their meagre allowances in internet cafés in order to express their grief and rage at the way they are forced to live. One such young man, 22-year-old Firstat Yildez from Turkey was murdered in an unprovoked racist attack in Sighthill, Glasgow, the city which received 4,000 asylum seekers last March. Hundreds of asylum seekers are currently in prison without being charged or convicted of any crime and many of them are picked on for ‘special treatment’ by inmates and officers.

Death of non-white immigrants evokes little sympathy. Two years ago the bodies of 58 young Chinese men and women were found in the back of an airless container on one of the hottest days of the year in Britain. Imagine the horror. The piss and vomit and clawed flesh, wild screams and fists banging on the walls. The nameless 58 – after all they were only Chinese, plenty more of them in the world – vanished into the ether, ignored by politicians, even in death un-pitied as ‘economic migrants’.

White immigrants are always seen as ‘intrepid’ people with ‘vigorous’ blood which adds to the stock of the receiving nation; similarly ambitious immigrants with darker skin or other ‘alien’ characteristics are always presumed to be carriers of chaos and untold problems.

Mongrel continent

White immigrants are always seen as ‘intrepid’ people with ‘vigorous’ blood

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a prize-winning columnist with The Independent newspaper in London, where she has lived since leaving Uganda in 1972.

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