Trial by ordeal was officially abolished in England in the year 1220, although witches continued to be dunked in water to establish their innocence or guilt until the end of the 17th century. Under this system, if the alleged witch sank and drowned, she was innocent of all charges. If she floated, she was guilty and was subsequently burnt at the stake.
A similar system has been put in place in the UK today to determine whether any of the hundreds of people who arrive on these shores seeking refuge from the violence and poverty unleashed on the third world by imperialist superexploitation actually qualify as Geneva Convention refugees with a right to remain in this country. These immigrants, who have been rebranded as ‘asylum seekers’, are subjected to unbearable hardships. If they commit suicide as a result, then they are ‘genuine’. If they don’t, they are labelled as ‘bogus’ and are deported.
In this country, rich though it is, the masses of working people experience constant downward pressure on their wages and living standards brought about by the thirst of their capitalist employers for greater and greater profits. The capitalists’ propaganda machine, along with its political representatives in all the establishment parties (Labour, Tory, LibDem etc), are charged with exonerating capitalism, and in this country they frequently try to do this by dumping the blame for every misfortune suffered by working people under capitalism on a section of the proletariat, ie, those with foreign origins. Currently, ‘asylum seekers’ are the preferred whipping boy, since it is less obvious that the campaign against them is fundamentally racist.
In order to prove that they are ‘doing something’ about the asylum seekers so unjustly convicted of hurting the interests of British workers, bourgeois governments set about making the lives of these scapegoats a complete and utter misery.
Caroline Moorhead, in her book Human Cargo (Chatto & Windus, London, 2005), describes the plight of a typical asylum seeker, 30-year-old Suleiman Dialo, a refugee from Guinea who ended up committing suicide. Dialo had fled from Guinea, leaving behind a good life as a small shopkeeper, when ruffians killed his parents, his brothers and his sisters. He too was severely beaten and tortured, leaving him with damaged feet. In these traumatic circumstances, he sold everything he had in order to raise the funds to be able to flee to Britain.
What sort of welcome awaited him here? He claimed asylum, and this put him completely at the mercy of the authorities. As an asylum seeker, he was prohibited from working, but was given a handout of £38 a week, a sum which Ms Moorehead says is “calculated nicely at 70 percent of what is deemed to be the minimum necessary for a decent life”. Under the government’s policy of dispersing asylum seekers to live in derelict properties around the country, Dialo was sent to Newcastle to live in a hostel in an area where literally not a single person spoke his language (Fula). With nothing to do all day, there was no entertainment of any kind available to him either, for he could not understand the TV or radio. They might as well have put him in prison in solitary confinement for the whole 18 months he was in this country, to brood about the terrors to which he would be returned if his plea for asylum failed.
Throughout that time he was living in terror of being returned to Guinea where, even if he escaped the clutches of the people who killed his family, his likely fate at best would be to starve to death. Without knowing the English language, this illiterate young man was expected to fight the system virtually on his own. Actually, he was lucky – he did have lawyers, even if he could communicate with them only in broken French. As legal aid budgets are cut, more and more solicitors are turning down asylum work, since they can’t make a living from it. Once one’s plea for asylum is turned down, which it invariably is, all benefits are withdrawn. The asylum seeker is not necessarily deported straight away, but he is left totally without means of subsistence. These are the circumstances in which Dialo killed himself.
There are some 25,000 people in this country at the moment suffering similar horrors to those undergone by Dialo. Most of them are genuinely in fear for their lives if they are returned, and they live with that fear every minute of every day. It is not an abstract fear, because most of them have suffered torture and/or seen their family members tortured, raped and killed.
And what are we to say when asylum seekers and their small children are thrown into prison? In 2003, a typical year, some 27,000 asylum seekers spent time in prison for reasons of immigration control. Turnover is high – there were in that year only 2,000 places available, though the government is planning to increase this to 4,000. On average 2,000 children every year are imprisoned in connection with asylum cases.
Kathleen Marshall, Scotland’s Children’s Commissioner, expressed her views on the treatment meted out to children whose families are earmarked for detention, as reported in The Times of 2 September 2005:
“What can happen is immigration officers and police; big groups of them, 11 to 14, go to a family’s house at 7am, sometimes earlier,” she said. “They waken the children in their beds; the officers in bulletproof vests waken the children, not the parents. They handcuff the parents in front of the children and then remove them by van on long journeys down to these prisons [eg, from Scotland to the notorious Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire]. Basically, they are prisons; I don’t care what anyone else calls them.
“It’s absolutely atrocious. I’m really concerned there hasn’t been more public outrage about this.”
When the families arrive at the prison, the conditions are often terrible. According to an undercover BBC documentary in March, shocking racism and abuse are commonplace in these detention centres. The documentary highlighted Oakington Immigration Reception Centre, near Cambridge, in particular, and also the ‘facility’ at Heathrow Airport.
The Independent of 27 July 2005 reported on the findings of Ms Owers, the chief inspector of prisons, on a round of inspection of immigration detention centres: “A five-year-old autistic girl … was so badly neglected [at Yarl’s Wood] that she had not eaten properly for four days …
“Other children held with their parents at Yarl’s Wood, near Bedford, were ‘damaged’ by their experience at the centre, which was not equipped to deal with these cases …
“In May, Ms Owers recommended urgent action to protect children at Scotland’s only immigration detention centre, Dungavel House. She said the children’s development was at greater risk than ever before. Yet the Home Office failed to implement recommendations made during a visit two years previously.
“Today’s report found that three children at Yarl’s Wood, two of whom were later released, were detained just before their GCSEs, leading Ms Owers to report that education levels were ‘inadequate’ and ‘depressing’.”
In August, Ms Owers went on to inspect the holding facilities at Gatwick Airport, London City Airport and Dover. Her view of these were that they had inadequate child protection facilities and were unsuitable for overnight stays: “None of the facilities we inspected was suitable for overnight stays – we found detainees sleeping on tables or in plastic chairs, sometimes without adequate heating, blankets or bedding.”
Is it any wonder then that suicide rates among asylum seekers are high? And for every young person who kills himself (like Hussein Nasseri, aged 26, in June 2004, Israfil Ishiri in September 2003, Babak Ahadi, Ramzan Kamluca (19) and Tran Quang Tung (23)), several others try and fail. Up and down the country, there are always jailed asylum seekers on hunger strike, about whom we hear very little.
Bogus or genuine?
The bourgeois press, especially the tabloid press, plays a major role in making the British population largely indifferent to all this suffering, by portraying asylum seekers as being ‘bogus’. For the sake of rooting out the ‘bogus’ (ie, those who are not actually in fear of being killed or tortured by political opponents or in ethnic confrontations, but are merely seeking to get a job that will enable them to feed their families!), the vast and genuine majority are made to suffer conditions that are designed to put people off claiming asylum in this country. One can gauge the eagerness of the government to portray every asylum seeker as ‘bogus’ by the fact that, while British citizens are being advised not to travel to Iraq because it is obviously dangerous, large numbers of (obviously ‘bogus’) Iraqi refugees are being deported back on the pretext that Iraq is safe!
In fact, the whole argument about ‘bogus’ versus ‘genuine’ asylum seekers is a spurious one. The economic hardships that force people to leave their homelands in search of a better life are every bit as compelling as more directly physical dangers. Whether your family is killed with guns or by starvation, or just left to rot below subsistence levels of existence with no access to healthcare or a decent education, the result is ultimately the same. If people from the oppressed world make the decision, for whatever reason, to give up everything they have known and loved in order to try to make a life in the imperialist countries, they only do so because of the poverty and deprivation in their homelands that has resulted from centuries of imperialist exploitation.
What right have people in Britain, with a living standard propped up by the plunder of half the world, to begrudge political and economic exiles from those plundered lands coming to take their tiny share of what should have been theirs by rights in the first place? What right has Britain, which has for centuries been sending vast sections of its ‘surplus’ population to colonise (and actually take over) whole regions of the world – the US, Canada, South Africa, Australia etc – to condemn those who emigrate in search of a better life?
We must refuse to close our eyes to the sufferings of our class brothers and sisters. We must demand that they receive in this country the treatment we would want for ourselves and our families were we to be forced away from these shores – for whatever reason. Furthermore, asylum seekers should be given work permits allowing them to work while they are here even if ultimately their application fails. Those successful in finding work could pay for their own food and accommodation, instead of being labelled as spongers, when sponging is the very last thing they want to do.
Moreover, we must recognise that it is capitalism that is the cause of poverty, unemployment and deteriorating living standards, not immigration. The racism that the ruling class seeks to instil in British workers by its constant vilification of ‘asylum seekers’ is actually an attempt to divert them from this basic truth. What’s more, racism serves to divide working people against each other, preventing them from joining together to fight against their real enemy: the capitalist ruling class. Ultimately, it is only by abolishing capitalism that workers will finally be free to build a really decent, secure and civilised life for all.