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In the Wake of the Riots, Britons Argue for More Immigration, Not Less

By David Bacon
July 11, 2001

LONDON (7/11/01) - The British midlands are being engulfed by race riots, pitting the children of whites who lost jobs in the country's devastating deindustrialization against sons and daughters of those who came to fill service jobs in the decades after the second world war. While Britain has its unique circumstances, the riots are reminescent of the attacks on immigrant hostels in the former East Germany, or those on North Africans in France.

With 130 million people worldwide living outside the countries in which they were born, the migration of people has become a permanent global social phenomenon, provoking deep questions in western industrial countries. Who is responsible for economic devastation and the lack of good jobs? Do all residents, legal and illegal, immigrant and native-born, have equal rights and status?

On April 6 this year, Perry Wacker, a Dutch truck driver, was found guilty in a British court for causing the deaths of 58 Chinese immigrants. They perished after he closed the air vent on his truck trailer, as he loaded it onto a ferry crossing the English Channel on a hot summer day. Wacker meant to keep any sound from alerting British customs agents who might suspect him of smuggling a human cargo. His subterfuge was discovered nonetheless. When the trailer was opened, all but two of the people crammed inside, with room enough only to stand, had died from heat, thirst and lack of oxygen.

It was not hard for the court to reach its decision. Wacker was just a driver - the low man on the totem pole. Ying Guo, residing in the town of South Woodford, Essex, was also convicted - she had lined up jobs for the border-crossers. But who else was really responsible? The "snakehead" gangs of smugglers? European political leaders who seek to win election by whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment?

Who benefits from a world economy where people flee debt-burdened countries to seek economic survival?

Jude Woodward, an organizer for the London-based National Assembly Against Racism, charges that the current British anti-immigrant hysteria "has been politician-led, and quite cynical." Britain just had a general election, in which Laborite Tony Blair won reelection by a big majority. But Woodward says the campaign left a residue of increased racism. "People coming to the UK or Europe are being shifted by the law into the asylum system. And as this has happened, politicians on the right have campaigned against immigrants, saying the asylum system was being misused, Unfortunately, the center left in British politics, like the labor party and the labor government, have tended to buy into this argument rather then stand up to it. That's what's fed the public mood."

According to the Assembly, almost all legal ways of coming to Europe have been closed off in line with agreements made within the European Union. "There's been tremendous concern amongst Black people," says Sabi Dalu, another Assembly organizer. She uses the term Black to refer to all people of color, including those of Asian, African and Caribbean ancestry. "There have been relentless attacks on asylum seekers and immigrants. the biggest since the 1960's & 70's when you had waves of immigrants come in from the former colonies like India and Uganda."

In a debate about immigration on the popular TV program Question Time, white people in the audience asked, 'Can't these people just seek asylum in the first country that they arrive in? Why do they have to come to Britain?" The defenders of immigrants were all Black.

"Racism doesn't exist just within western, industrialized societies," Woodward says, "but in the relationship between those countries and the rest of the world - the Black majority of the human race." She believes that the problem will only be resolved by more immigration, not less.

"There's a mantra in establishment circles that says that good race relations depend on immigration policies," Woodward explains. "The only way to guarantee good race relations, they say, is to keep more Black people from coming in, so that you have a sort of acceptable balance. This argument turns reality upside down. The most positive thing for race relations is to have more Black people here, because the more integrated society becomes, the less space there is for racism. This argument is not primarily about economics - it's about race."

Since the 80's, the EU has tried to harmonize the different immigration policies of member countries, and as a result, all have tightened immigration policies until virtually no one is allowed in. Now, in the very last few years, those policies are being questioned Demographically and economically, Europe needs a renewal of its labor force, which can only come about through new migration.

"The circumstances which caused the deaths of the 58 Chinese immigrants will only be changed when the whole framework for migration into Europe is changed," Dalu predicts. "At present it is virtually impossible to apply legally enter the EU. There have to be legal means by which people can come, and then apply for the right to stay here indefinitely. That's the only way to stop people coming on false papers, hidden in the back of lorries or even on the undercarriage of aircraft."

Only a new demographic balance, she argues, and its reflection in increased rights and power among Black communities, will end the riots as well.

Copyright (c) 2001 David Bacon. All Rights Reserved.

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