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A charter for xenophobes

JEREMY CORBYN says Theresa May's Immigration Bill marks a new low in the debate on migrants. But a campaign launching tomorrow night could help fight it

Last weekend a group headed by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso descended on the Italian island of Lampedusa to express sympathy with the drowning of 274 people from Africa, who had tried to reach it as a gateway to Europe.

This is just the latest of such tragedies. Around 18,000 people have died trying to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean in the past two decades.

The Italian government announced there would be a state funeral for the latest victims, who had merely been searching for a place of safety, while the dignitaries poured in from across Europe. But the people of Lampedusa greeted this show of concern with accusations of hypocrisy.

Those who died in this incident came from Syria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Libya and a whole host of war-torn authoritarian countries across Africa.

All countries that the West is happy to sell arms to and equally happy to extract minerals and raw materials from.

Yet at the same time our governments say these desperate people are not welcome in Europe.

Our continent prides itself on adherence to the historic 1951 Geneva Convention, under which all signatory nations are required to provide a place of safety for victims of political, religious or social oppression.

It is also home to the historic 1948 European Convention on Human Rights, which includes the right to a family life.

The media in Britain - as in most of Europe - is completely schizophrenic when it comes to migration.

It applauds European migrants who go to live in other parts of the world to seek a better economic life and complains if any of them are badly treated.

But it seldom recognises the enormous economic contribution made to our economy and society by migrants over past decades.

It also indulges in some deeply unpleasant rhetoric about the alleged problems created by immigrants.

The big newspapers constantly claim that immigration is the number-one concern of every voter in Britain.

And opinion polls are then conducted on behalf of Sky News or other outlets which confirm that immigration is indeed a common concern.

But interestingly, look at those figures in more detail and you'll find that immigration is a much greater concern to those who live in the parts of the country which are least affected by it - areas with very few ethnic minority communities and almost no immigration.

Those who live in multicultural urban environments where there are either established ethnic minority communities, communities of immigrants or both are much less bothered by the alleged problems of immigration.

The Lampedusa tragedy spurred an outburst of humanitarian sympathy for the victims. But the debate about immigration law, supposed "health tourism" and alleged "benefit tourism" is conducted without any humanity whatsoever.

It creates a climate of fear among adults who have not managed to regularise their immigration status and inspires terror in children who are threatened with removal from Britain to countries they have often never visited.

I have lost count of the number of immigration Bills that have been placed before Parliament in the three decades I've been a member.

But they tend to follow a pattern. They arrive mid-term or late in a Parliament's life and reflect governments' electoral concerns, the perceived need to be seen as "tough" on some of the poorest and most vulnerable.

The latest Immigration Bill proposed by Home Secretary Theresa May and, as ever, widely trailed at the Conservative Party conference seeks to build on a rather tired Home Office theme - using other people as proxies for the immigration service.

This idea began with the Carriers Liability Act 1987, which made airlines into agents of the service. The new Bill extends this by requiring private landlords to check the immigration status of their tenants, banks to refuse services to people who cannot prove a clean immigration record and people who overstay their visas to have their driving licences withdrawn.

It also confirms a very dubious legal process of deporting people before they can conduct appeals in this country, making them appeal instead from the juridiction they have been sent back to.

If these appeals then succeed they can return to Britain. But quite who would pay the costs of all this is unclear.

The whole process is conducted according to the narrative of alleged problems caused by article 8 of the European Convention, the right to family life.

But the public debate is developing in an interesting way. When the Home Office sponsored advertising vans to drive around London urging people to go home or face arrest there was an outpouring of genuine anger - and even the Advertising Standards Authority upheld complaints against it.

Likewise, when a group of churches and trade unions called for citizenship to be given to people who have survived for a long time in Britain without papers, they were joined by an interesting coalition of supporters including London's Tory Mayor Boris Johnson, who highlighted the fact that these people are often very poor, insecure and potentially open to the most appalling exploitation by ruthless employers, landlords and criminals.

Citizens with rights can legitimately request protection from the state, but the superexploitation of those without these rights does not merely harm them - it undermines the security of the rest of the community.

This evening a Movement Against Xenophobia is being launched in the House of Commons with the support of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) and many other organisations.

This will be a challenge to those who make extraordinary and exaggerated claims about the number of migrants to Britain and deny the huge contributions that they make to this country.

The new campaign should be an effective tool for opposing the details of the Immigration Bill.

That Bill is already drawing criticism from landlords who do not wish to become agents of the Home Office, banks which do not believe their job is to become an arm of the state and indeed those concerned that it would push people legally seeking the right to remain in Britain into homelessness and destitution, depending on the goodwill of churches, mosques and charities to survive.

It's easy for the powerful in the media or government to attack migrants without thinking for a moment of the consequences for the affected human beings or for the society in which we all live.

JCWI chairman Habib Rahman has predicted that "these measures will divide society, creating a two-tier Britain, a return to the days of 'no dogs, no blacks, no Irish' and of ill people with no access to health care walking the streets of Britain."

Britain's biggest union Unite, which organised an anti-racist march in Liverpool last weekend, has also made a welcome commitment to "oppose this Bill every step of the way. It is an affront to the British way of life.

"We do not spy on our friends and neighbours on behalf of the state. This government has now stepped out of the gutter and into the sewer to plumb new lows in public life."

It's all of our duty to derail this vicious and damaging Bill.

 

Jeremy Corbyn is Labour MP for Islington North. He is one of the speakers at the launch of the Movement Against Xenophobia (Max) tomorrow night at 7pm in Committee Room 10 in the House of Commons.

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