SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 79, November 2003

Asylum and immigration in Britain today

At the New Labour and Tory Party conferences, inflammatory speeches reaffirmed that both parties are prepared to whip up prejudice against asylum seekers and immigrants. This issue clearly has the potential to deeply divide society and raises many questions which have to be addressed by working class and trade union activists. HANNAH SELL outlines the socialist approach.

INDELIBLY MARKED AS a liar by the Hutton enquiry, Tony Blair went to this year’s Labour Party conference a wounded man, desperate to use his annual address to rebuild his standing. The resulting speech had many nauseating qualities but perhaps the foulest was his blatant attempt to restore his own popularity by whipping up prejudice by talking about ‘derailing the gravy train’ for asylum seekers.

Nor was this just a one-off conference ploy. Home Secretary David Blunkett is implementing a series of measures designed to create the impression that New Labour is heroically manning the barricades to prevent a flood of ‘bogus’ asylum seekers entering the country (see box 1). At Tory Party conference, Oliver Letwin went even further, talking about locking up all asylum seekers on a ‘far, faraway island’. Perhaps it is not surprising that he had no idea which island would agree to his plans. After all, his first brainwave was the poll tax when he worked as an assistant to Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s!

However, none of the proposals of New Labour or the Tories will prevent immigration into the country, any more than any of the increasingly repressive legislation of the previous decade has been able to do. Nor are they primarily designed to do so. Rather, they are political ploys arising from a fear of the far-right gaining from anti-asylum sentiment and, in Labour’s case, aimed at distracting workers from the government’s responsibility for the decay of our public services. Far from undercutting the far-right by stealing their clothes, however, New Labour increases the possibility of the British National Party (BNP) and its ilk growing. BNP leader, Nick Griffin, has described Blunkett as the BNP’s ‘best recruiting sergeant’.

It is not the immigration policies of successive governments that have led to an increase in the number of asylum seekers over the last decade. Capitalism at the start of the 21st century means an increasingly unstable and violent world, and this has led to growing numbers of people leaving their homes to try and find safety and security elsewhere. Repressive regimes, war and conflict, economic crises and environmental disasters are the conditions that create refugees internationally. In the modern world, where travel is more possible than ever before, it is inevitable that people try to escape from terrible conditions. And those conditions are the consequences of the capitalist system which is based on exploitation, competition and the pursuit of profit; a system which New Labour and the other main political parties represent. This system condemns 1.2 billion people to live on less than $1 a day. The richest 200 companies have combined sales worth more than the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of all but ten nations in the world. Globally, $1 trillion a year is wasted on military spending. It is a system of economic crises, increasingly leading to whole states ‘failing’, a system that is stagnating on a global scale.

While capitalism’s instability has increased the numbers who leave their homelands, international migrants – defined as people who live outside their homeland for a year or more – only account for under 3% of the world’s population: a total, in 2000, of maybe 150 million people, less than the population of Brazil. Only twelve million of these are refugees or asylum seekers – people who have been forced to leave their countries to escape war, persecution or natural disaster. The rest have moved for economic or other reasons. And the vast majority of those who are refugees do not come to Europe. It is the world’s poorest countries that both produce and bear responsibility for most refugees. During 1992-2001, 86% of the world’s refugees originated from developing countries, and also provided asylum to 72% of the global refugee population. If you consider global refugee and asylum seeking populations in relation to the host country’s size, population and wealth, the UK ranks 32nd. Taking the greatest burden are Iran, Burundi and Guinea.

Still it is true that there has also been an increase in immigration to the European Union (EU), including Britain. Over the last decade, an average of 1.2 million people entered the EU legally each year. Overall, the numbers have tailed off over the last couple of years, although they remain at a higher level than they were before the 1990s. It is, however, very difficult to get an accurate picture. The Economist magazine compared information from the Belgian and Italian governments on migration between the two countries and found it was completely different!

In a country like Britain, with relatively few internal checks, it is even harder to keep accurate records. Nonetheless, two definite conclusions can be drawn. Firstly, net immigration has been at a higher level than at any time over the last 150 years. Secondly, only a minority of these are asylum seekers. In fact, the majority come for a specific job and pay taxes from the moment they arrive. Contrary to the tabloid media’s attempts to lump together all immigrants, in 1999, for example, only 28% of non-British immigrants were asylum seekers. However, the number of asylum seekers has increased. In 2002, 84,130 people applied for asylum in Britain.

A boost to profits

THIS IS A change from the previous century. Between 1870 and 1920 Jewish immigration to Britain from Russia and Eastern Europe was at least as great as current levels of immigration. However, despite this there was a net outflow of over 2.6 million. This was largely due to emigration to the British colonies and the US. Only in the 1950s was there net immigration as the capitalist class appealed to workers from South Asia and the Caribbean to fulfil the need for cheap labour. Even so, net immigration was only about 12,000 over the decade. Also, this was against the background of the post-war economic expansion which meant that, unlike today, living standards for many workers in Britain were improving significantly. In the 1980s, when Thatcher declared immigration a ‘problem’, there was a net outflow.

The propaganda of the capitalist media and the mainstream political parties declares that current levels of immigration are unmanageable. But this is not their real position. On the contrary, immigration, both legal and illegal, is useful to them. The Economist argued in its 2002 survey of migration: "The gap between labour’s rewards in the poor and the rich countries, even for something as menial as clearing tables, dwarfs the gap between the prices of traded goods from different parts of the world. The potential gains [profits] from liberalising migration therefore dwarf those from removing barriers to world trade".

Immigration offers an invaluable opportunity for capitalists to compensate for an aging population in Europe and, at the same time, force wages down. It is an extension of neo-liberal policies. The globalisation of the world economy has been used to increase profits. One aspect of this is the moving of production to countries where labour is cheaper. Now they are trying to globalise labour by encouraging cheap-labour workers to travel to richer countries, thereby driving down wages there. This is particularly true with public and private services which cannot be moved around. This is taking place across Europe. The European Commission concluded that "more sustained immigration flows are increasingly likely and necessary. The trend towards a shrinking working-age population in Europe in combination with various push factors in the developing countries is likely to generate a sustained flow of immigrants over the next decade". In Britain, the government’s Actuary Department (which calculates population) estimates that immigration will account for 60% of the growth in the working-age population between 2002 and 2006.

Risk of social upheaval

THE ECONOMIST EXPLAINS, from the capitalist point of view, that the limitations to this are not practical but political: "But those gains can be made only at great political cost. Countries rarely welcome strangers in their midst".

The arrival of new immigrants has always had the potential to create dangerous instability. The nation state is the basic unit of capitalist society, whilst at the same time holding back its development. Today, in the era of globalisation, the productive forces – industry, science and technique – have long outgrown their national base. Therefore, the capitalists strain against the limitations of the nation state. However, they can only partially surmount it. The big corporations are, almost without exception, still based in, and tied to, particular countries. They rely on the market and political superstructure of their home nation. An intrinsic part of that superstructure is a national consciousness which the capitalist class taps into, for example, to win support for its wars. However, the capitalists cannot switch national consciousness on and off at will.

British capitalism felt it had no choice but to limit immigration at the end of the 1960s, despite the economic advantages it could have gained by speeding it up, because they feared the potential for social instability. Recently published cabinet papers from 1972 reveal how Tory prime minister Ted Heath called for harsh measures to prevent a second influx of Ugandan Asians, despite feeling that this was against Britain’s interests and his own better judgement. Today, when the lives of workers in Britain are, in general, becoming more difficult – as working hours increase and public services deteriorate – the potential for instability and conflict is clear.

New Labour has attempted to bridge the gap between the political advantages of attacking asylum seekers and cracking down on ‘illegal’ immigrants, and the capitalists’ desire for cheap labour by increasing the number of legal ‘economic’ migrants into Britain. The anti-asylum seeker propaganda that runs through its ‘crackdown’ has massively increased prejudice against asylum seekers, immigrants in general, and against more long-standing ethnic minority communities.

At the same time, the number of people working legally in Britain who were born abroad has increased from 1.8 million in 1995 to 2.6 million today. The largest increases are in South Africans and Australians. The sectors that use most migrant labour are healthcare, education, cleaning, food manufacture, catering and hotels. Until recently, the government’s policy of dramatically increasing ‘economic’ migration has been formally limited to skilled workers taking specific jobs. Many of these are in the public sector, such as nurses, teachers and doctors.

A recent opinion poll showed that 70% of people support immigrants taking these jobs if it means that a skills shortage will be filled. However, the shortages that exist in many parts of the public sector reflect New Labour’s unwillingness to adequately resource training or public-sector workers’ wage rises, in particular. As a result of stress and low pay, 40% of newly qualified teachers leave teaching within their first three years in the job. The response of New Labour has not been to increase wages and staffing levels to tempt more teachers to teach. Instead, in London in particular, it has relied on immigrant workers to plug the gap. With the promise of better pay and conditions, teachers and nurses from other countries are encouraged to move to Britain. As a result, the Jamaican government has complained that 600 teachers moved abroad this year to work, mainly in Britain and the US. Last year, South Africa accused the British government of ‘plundering’ staff. However, the better pay and conditions are far from luxurious. In one London school, immigrant teachers were housed in Portakabins in the school playground!

Unskilled labour

IN THE FUTURE, New Labour intends to go further by allowing a quota of unskilled workers into the country every year. At the same time, it is claiming to clamp down on illegal immigration. For the capitalists, however, illegal immigration is the best unskilled labour of all. The Economist said: "Illegal migrants are the most employment-hungry, market-sensitive arrivals of all. In the United Sates, points out Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Centre, they provide just-in-time labour: ‘A meat-packing plant in Iowa can say to the foreman, next month, we need 5% more workers for three months. On the day they are needed, they’ll be there. It’s extremely efficient’. To convince their voters that migration is under control, governments have to curb the illegal sort. But they would be foolish, in doing so, to lose the flexibility and employability that illegals contribute".

In the same article, The Economist described a survey by the National Research Council (NRC) into the effects illegal immigrants have in the US. NRC concluded that, overall, immigration had reduced the wages of groups competing with immigrants – predominantly the low paid – by 1-2%.

This is one reason that Blunkett’s plan to introduce ID cards may not be carried through. Many in the cabinet are opposed because they see it as an expensive and bureaucratic scheme which will bring limited benefits. Some sections of big business, as reflected in The Economist, are opposed for the same reasons. They are happy with large numbers of ‘illegals’. Britain already has a low-paid, ‘flexible’ workforce. But as far as capitalism is concerned, wages can never be too low or employment practises too ‘flexible’. Workers with no rights and on slave wages are a useful tool in forcing down wages.

ID cards are not the only policy of Blunkett’s which is unlikely to be implemented. Most of his proposals, while they may serve his propaganda purposes, are impractical. For example, the much vaunted policy of building twelve to 15 asylum centres, mostly in the countryside, theoretically to house 40% of all asylum seekers, is running into problems. The residents of rural and suburban ‘Middle England’, whom New Labour sees as a key audience, have not proved amenable to having the centres built in their ‘backyards’. As a result, New Labour has not yet come up with one definite site. The government may be forced to rethink, just as it was on the call for ‘asylum centres’ outside of the EU.

Without doubt, however partially they are implemented, New Labour’s plans will lead to increased misery for asylum seekers. But they will not stop people fleeing persecution and war coming to Britain. As long as capitalism remains, asylum seekers will continue to exist in large numbers. In Britain, as in other countries, the numbers will ebb and flow with the passage of crises and wars. For example, the increase in asylum applications last year was mainly from Iraq and Zimbabwe. Occasionally, policy decisions – such as the government declaring that Iraq and Zimbabwe are safe – can cut numbers. But the next war or famine will lead to a new upsurge.

A socialist approach

WHAT ATTITUDE SHOULD socialists take to the question of asylum? We are fighting for the abolition of capitalism and for the development of socialism on a world scale. Only on this basis would it to be possible to harness science and technique to build a society that could meet the needs of all humanity. In a socialist world no-one would need to flee hunger or war. At the same time, part of the struggle for socialism is for humanity’s right to move. Passports and immigration controls are portrayed by the capitalists as permanent and immutable yet they were introduced over the last 100 years. Under modern capitalism, capital is free to traverse the world. Yet people are considered criminals if they try and leave their home country (unless, of course, they are required as cheap labour). Only on the basis of socialism would it be possible to have the genuine free movement of peoples.

Under capitalism the issue of immigration remains a powerful propaganda weapon in the hands of the ruling class. To counter this, socialists must adopt a skilful approach. We have to steadfastly oppose the scapegoating of asylum seekers and economic migrants, and fight for their rights. However, in doing so we are aiming to convince as many workers as possible of this position. To adopt, as some on the left do, a headline slogan like ‘asylum seekers welcome here’ is a mistake. It will never gain the ear of the vast majority of working-class people in Britain. Even amongst the most thinking sections of workers, who are aware of how the government uses asylum to deflect attention from its neo-liberal policies, there is a feeling that Britain cannot cope with more than a limited number of asylum seekers. Amongst broader sections of the working class the wave of anti-asylum seeker propaganda has had a marked effect. There is a feeling that their numbers are partly responsible for the dilapidated state of public services. And while racism is clearly a strong element in the most vitriolic anti-asylum feeling, this is not a simple question. It is undoubtedly true that the anti-asylum feeling is stronger in towns with small black and Asian populations, or in predominantly white suburbs on the edges of more mixed towns, than it is in London, where two-thirds of immigrants settle and 28% of the population are from ethnic minorities. (Incidentally, this proves that it is not overcrowding that causes anti-asylum feeling, as London is by far the most densely-populated part of Britain.) Nonetheless, anti-asylum seeker feeling does not only exist among white workers, but also among second and third generation immigrants from the neo-colonial world. Several opinion polls show that, as a result of the deluge of propaganda against them, the broadest hostility is towards Eastern European refugees rather than those from Africa or Asia.

That is not in any way to suggest that racism is no longer an issue in Britain. Racism has been an integral part of capitalism since its infancy when it was used to justify the slave trade. Later, racism was adapted to justify the colonial powers carving up the world between them. Today, racism is still ingrained in British society. The increased wealth and privilege of a small minority of black and Asian people is used to disguise the fact that we continue to live in a deeply unequal society. On average, black and Asian workers earn only three-quarters of the wage of their white counterparts. And black people are five times as likely to be stopped by the police. Nonetheless, hostility towards asylum seekers, as the newest arrivals on the bottom rung of the ladder, is not simply a question of race.

Socialists have to counter this hostility with a class approach. It is the poor, the world’s huddled masses, who have to face impossible obstacles to claiming asylum and the vitriol of the mainstream parties and media. Even though many asylum seekers do not come from the poorest strata in their country of origin, by the time they have spent their resources to cross the world, they generally arrive in Britain with nothing. By contrast, anyone with over £250,000 in their bank account, from wherever they came, is welcomed with open arms. Russian oligarchs, like Boris Berezovsky (who made his millions on the backs of Russian workers, and faces charges of money laundering in Russia), are granted political asylum. At the same time, it is not the rich but the poorest sections of the indigenous working class who are on the sharp end of low pay and New Labour’s cuts, and who have been most affected by anti-asylum seeker vitriol.

Whilst defending the rights of asylum seekers we must link that directly to our programme to fight to improve the living conditions of working people as a whole and to the struggle for socialism. Socialists have to oppose the persecution and jailing of asylum seekers, along with the rest of Blunkett’s reactionary legislation, highlighting issues such as the building of detention centres and the prosecution of those without papers. We have to defend the right of asylum, of families to be reunited and of asylum seekers to work. We should call for an end to the forced dispersal system and for asylum seekers to live where they choose, with central government providing local authorities with the necessary resources. Any plans to provide housing for asylum seekers in new areas should not be done secretly through NASS (National Asylum Support Service – the secretive government agency that currently deals with asylum seekers) but openly and under local authority control.

Trade union action

AT THE SAME time, it is necessary to work out a more detailed programme in individual communities where there has been a sudden influx of asylum seekers. We always fight to prevent working-class communities having to suffer further over-stretching of limited services. Government policy means that this is the effect of the sudden arrival of new asylum seekers. We have to call for community campaigns to secure extra resources – more teachers, doctors, language support and so on – in some cases, even as a precondition to the arrival of new groups of asylum seekers. In doing so we should always strive to build a united campaign of asylum seekers and local communities.

However, probably the most critical aspect of this discussion is the role of immigrants in the workplace. The organisation of immigrants into trade unions is not a new issue for the British working class, but it will form a vital aspect of both the struggle against low pay and the struggle against racism in the coming years. As far back as 1839, when William Cuffay (who was born in St Kitts in the Caribbean), founded the garment workers’ union, immigrant workers have played a role greater than their numbers in the British labour movement. The labour movement at its best has also played the key role in fighting racism. In the 1950s, for example, the railway workers’ union played the leading role in getting rid of the colour bar in many London pubs. This flowed from a realisation that the only way to stop bosses using workers from the Caribbean as cheap labour was to unionise them and launch a common struggle for decent pay. In the 1970s trade unions were instrumental in the battle to defeat the far-right racist National Front.

It is as a result of these traditions that black and Asian workers formed a strong bond with the labour movement, even though the majority did not come from an urban background in their home countries. In the 1970s, black and Asian workers played a key role in many industrial struggles. The Grunwick strike against low pay in 1976, which largely involved Asian women, was one of the most important battles of the decade. Even today, after the general fall in union membership in the 1990s, Afro-Caribbean workers still have a higher level of union membership (32.4%) than the workforce as a whole (26.6%). However, amongst newer immigrants, levels are much lower – 11% for workers born in Eastern Europe, for example.

If the trade union movement fails to win the new generation of immigrants, the pay and conditions of all workers will be undermined. The potential for heroic struggles was demonstrated in the US by the strike of Mexican janitors. They faced the risk not only of the sack but deportation and hostility from the trade union bureaucracy (dramatised in the Ken Loach film, Bread and Roses). However, it is not automatic that immigrant workers will be won to the labour movement. Socialists have to argue for a programme around which to do that. Key to this would be launching a serious struggle for a minimum wage of £8 an hour with no exemptions. We should specify that all workers, regardless of their legal status, should receive the minimum wage. There are currently between 48 and 123 government inspectors investigating employers who do not pay the minimum wage. Of the 56,000 complaints made by workers only 26 resulted in action being taken against the employers! The trade union movement should launch a massive ‘crackdown’ on the slave-labour bosses, in opposition to government ‘crackdowns’ on illegal immigrants working.

We must also campaign for the trade union movement to fight for all migrant workers to be employed on equal pay and conditions to indigenous workers in order to prevent immigration being used to lower wages. This is particularly urgent in the public sector, where there is a higher level of union organisation and New Labour is using migrant workers to plug gaps.

If the trade union movement as a whole launched a serious struggle against low pay, specifically taking up the rights of immigrant workers, it would transform the political landscape. At the same time as arguing for such a struggle, where socialists have significant influence, a campaign on this kind of programme can have a real effect in uniting the different sections of workers in Britain, both immigrant and indigenous.

Box 1

New Labour’s latest crackdowns


July: The ‘right’ of asylum seekers to apply for special permission to work is taken away.

November: Any applications from ten EU accession states – Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia – are automatically considered unfounded, with no right of appeal. Applications from these states fell from 285 in October to 40 in March.

December: Sangatte centre at Calais closed after intense pressure from the British government.


January: Those who do not claim asylum immediately they enter Britain lose the right to benefits.

January: Anyone with refugee status in another part of the European Economic Area cannot receive benefits.

January: Visas become necessary for Jamaicans travelling to Britain.

February: Treaties with Bulgaria and Romania make it easier to return failed asylum seekers.

February: Asylum applications by post are banned.

February: Visas become necessary for Zimbabweans travelling to Britain.

February: Applications from Albania, Bulgaria, Jamaica, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro are automatically considered unfounded.

More measures planned by the government include:

The introduction of a citizenship ceremony and a requirement that those seeking citizenship should have a knowledge of life in Britain.

The arrest and prosecution of any asylum seeker without documentation.

The building of twelve to 15 asylum centres each holding around 750 people, with the capacity to hold around 40% of all asylum seekers. Several of these to be located in rural areas.

The possible introduction of ID cards which would have to be shown to get a job, or use the NHS or other services.

Box 2

What are conditions really like?

If an asylum seeker gets into Britain, this is what they face as they wait for a judgment:

A person over 25 is entitled to £38.26 a week in state benefits; 18-25 year-olds get £30.28.

These benefits are 70% of the income support level considered to provide the ‘absolute necessities of existence’. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work.

Asylum seekers are entitled to housing but a fifth of the housing they occupy is classified as unfit for human habitation.

Previously it was the duty of local authorities to provide this. Responsibility is now with the National Asylum Support Service (NASS). NASS has a policy of ‘dispersing’ asylum seekers across Britain. In order to get housed, asylum seekers are forced to move to wherever NASS chooses. Only 58 of 440 English and Welsh councils are part of the dispersal system. The overwhelming majority are in poorer working class areas where resources are overstretched.

Most asylum seekers are in privately-rented accommodation. Often it is in low quality property converted into overcrowded, substandard housing for rent to asylum seekers via NASS. Councils have no control over this and usually are not informed. One result is that, when an asylum claim is successful, NASS immediately stops funding their housing. Penniless asylum seekers, who have not yet had any opportunity to find work or save for a deposit on a house or flat, are left homeless and at the mercy of a local authority that was previously unaware of their existence.


Overworked, Underpaid and Over Here, TUC, July 2003

Survey on Migration, The Economist, November 2002

Special reports on Diasporas, Migration, and Emigration, The Economist, January, August, September 2003

Asylum City, The Asylum Coalition, September 2002

Response to the Lord Chancellor’s Consultation on Proposed Changes to Publicly Funded Asylum Work, Asylum Aid, August 2003

Asylum Statistics United Kingdom 2002, National Statistics Office, August 2002

British Public Attitudes and Ethnic Minorities, Cabinet Office Innovation Unit, July 2001

Progress Report on the Minimum Wage 2002, Low Pay Commission, January 2003


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