New Internationalist

No Room At The Inn

Issue 350

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Refugees / RACISM

In limbo: refugees[image, unknown]
contemplate and[image, unknown]
await their fate.[image, unknown]

 

 

 

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

No room at the inn

Photo: Dominic Ridley, Lorena Ros / STILL PICTURES, SOUTHERN GATE

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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.

Politicians and opinion-makers would deny that they are being racist or xenophobic. It is to do with culture, they argue, and to keep indigenous populations from feeling 'swamped' and thus prey to rabid extremists.

Once more the underpinning xenophobia becomes evident. The murder of Pim Fortuyn, the gay, so-called 'liberal' yet vehemently anti-immigrant politician, brought this agenda out in the open. He became a hero overnight  for being the first to 'dare' to bring up cultural protectionism as a reason for his policies.

In the wake of this killing, nearby Denmark brought in the most punitive asylum laws of any developed country, mainly because the population does not want more Muslims entering the country. France and Germany only take people who can prove persecution by the State. This means that Algerians fleeing unidentified murder squads or Palestinians trying to escape the wretched battles between their militants and the hard-line Israeli Government would have no case at all in those countries. These policies are tailor-made to exclude people whose lives are destroyed by a number of forces and almost all these people are from poorer or Muslim countries.

Mongrel continent
The assumption is that the European nations have superior monocultural identities which are threatened by dark hordes who will destroy the democratic heart of the continent. But Europe has always been a mongrel continent, made and remade by outsiders who come in and change the countries and themselves. Most non-white Europeans would not return to their countries because they now value democracy, freedom and rights which they have acquired through migration.

And in time many give their adopted country much more than they ever take from it, as a British government report Migration, an economic and social analysis confirms. Levels of entrepreneurship, self-employment and education are high. At present 33 per cent of asylum seekers to the Britain have a degree or professional qualifications compared with 15 per cent of the British population; 65 per cent speak at least two languages in addition to their first language; 66 per cent had jobs in their own countries.

Those unquantifiable benefits count for far more than the plain economics of course, in sports, the arts, pop music, food. The best selling author of White Teeth Zadie Smith and top heart-transplant surgeon Sir Magdi Yacoub are products of the searing and creative interactions and exchanges which migration forces both on those who move and the inhabitants of the places they move to.

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

Immigration brings new blood and extraordinary advantages. There are challenges to be met. Integration and disintegration are real problems as is civic unrest and social disorder. When people with diverse values share spaces, there is inevitable internal competition. As immigration debates get ever more emotive, settled migrants and citizens of colour react with animosity towards new arrivals whatever the push factors. Politicians from the main parties and sections of the media have convinced British people of all races that their good lives are in jeopardy, threatened by newcomers who are mostly liars, thugs, thieves, with contrived sob stories about human-rights abuses which they use as illegal passports to enter and settle down in a country which patently does not want or believe them.

Societies, too, have the right to reject values which are directly inimical to human rights and social democracy. Some hard ongoing bargaining on just what is appropriate and acceptable in terms of cultural and religious rights should be part of the process of settlement. In many European countries there is understandable rejection of oppressive practices against young people and women within some migrant groups. Forced marriages, denials of personal autonomy or rights to education cannot be 'tolerated' in the name of multiculturalism. Governments have the right to question and marginalize immigrants who operate as an enemy within or those who ask to be allowed to operate as states within states. Most European Muslims - who do feel themselves to be just that and not Muslims who are just camped in Europe - find it intolerable to be associated with militant haters of Jews, Christians and others and they would welcome a more prominent role in defining immigration and integration policies.

In Canada, which has one of the more intelligent, compassionate and less racist immigration policies, it is stated up-front that all arrivals should be bound by a set of non-negotiable principles and values in exchange for equal and fair treatment. Sure, racism exists but a clear policy and well-resourced public education campaigns reduce its impact. It is a model Europe would do well to emulate.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown [image, unknown] 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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