Among the most urgent issues identified by the Enfield Civil Society Forum – which met for the first time on 17th February – was the way asylum and immigration issues were being exploited in the run up to the general election. Local politicians were claiming that ‘99% of asylum seekers were fraudulent and were economic migrants’, that ‘the effect of [asylum seeker costs] amounts to a three per cent increase in your council tax’ and that the local primary care trust was ’encouraging asylum seekers – many of whom by the Government’s own figures must be bogus – to take full advantage of the NHS’. Indeed the three Enfield Conservative parliamentary candidates were reported in the Enfield Gazette to have ‘united to criticise the cost of asylum-seekers in Enfield’. Immigration, of course, was ‘out of control’.
The council leader himself opined that ‘people are …conscious that [asylum seekers] are tapping into services they are also using and feel it is unfair those people have not long been residents and have not directly contributed to the service’.
There was no attempt to understand the reasons people seek asylum or migrate, still less the framework of international law, conventions and rights governing asylum and refugee issues. Nor was there the slightest sign these politicians understood the historical significance of asylum (not even in the 1930s) or immigration (despite its cultural impact and importance for postwar economic growth). The role of war, arms exports and free markets in displacing populations was passed over in silence. There was no mention of the rights enjoyed by UK citizens to seek opportunity anywhere in the EU, nor the huge numbers of British people who had emigrated worldwide in the past. No one recalled the positive annual contribution to the national income (£2.5bn at the last count) of migrant workers, nor the fact that (according to the National Farmers’ Union) parts of agriculture and horticulture would be forced to close down without migrant workers, nor migrant workers’ importance for the NHS today and the future of the welfare state. Worst of all, none of these comments showed the slightest appreciation of the poverty, racism and often violence to which our asylum system frequently condemns those who seek British protection. Indeed the commentators were prepared to make this worse in the pursuit of electoral advantage.
Most contributions to this ‘debate’ came from local Conservatives, but when Labour nationally replied (7th February) with its ‘five year strategy’, it was apparent its aim was to sound even more restrictive than its opponents. Visa applicants were to be fingerprinted and refugees were to be made permanently insecure through time limits on their status. Labour migration would aim to select primarily the most highly-trained workers (precisely those like doctors and nurses crucial to health and development in their home countries), while the less skilled would never acquire residence and have no right to be joined by their families.
To counter this unprincipled ‘race to the bottom’ between the major parties, the Civil Society Forum has promoted a ‘joint statement on asylum and immigration’ which has now been adopted by thirteen organizations and faith groups and is being considered by many more. The statement – text below - will be launched at an event at Community House, Edmonton, on Thursday 14th April, when through community participation and media coverage it is hoped to impress upon political activists that there are real costs as well as imagined advantages to playing the xenophobic card in the general election.
The launch event is restricted to organizations which have endorsed the statement. If you live in Enfield and agree with it, please make sure any organization you belong to has considered it (020 8882 3621 for further information).