United Kingdom: more restrictions for refugees

The new state racism and the philosophy of deterrence - by Liz Feteke

12.Nov.01 - This article first appeared in the october issue of 'race and class' [see www.irr.org.uk for more information] the version below is a sligtly shortend version that appeared in the german magazine 'off limits'.

For many decades, campaigners have fought against the racism of the British state as epitomised by discriminatory immigration laws. The Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962 had, for the first time, limited the entry of (black) British subjects, imposing on them the requirement of work vouchers, and by 1971, immigration for work (primary immigration) was all but abolished for black people. The new state racism of today, however, differs from that earlier period in that the national state is not its originator; rather state racism is derived from a global racism which is manufactured by supranational bodies, assimilated into EU programmes and transmitted to the member states for incorporation in domestic asylum and immigration laws. In an era of globalism, when the nation state is the agent of multinationals, the powers of the nation state are considerably diminished. And this is as true in the field of immigration and asylum policy, where power has shifted to supranational bodies and inter-governmental forums, as in economic policy, where power has shifted to the IMF and the World Bank. With the EU intent on institutionalising policies which undermine Article 31 of the 1951 Geneva Convention by criminalising illegal entry, it was only a matter of time before the UK government followed in the footsteps of its governmental counterparts across Europe. But it was not until the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act, which was introduced as the EU harmonised asylum and immigration laws at the Tampere Summit of October 1999, that the UK government put into place internal mechanisms that reflected the EU approach to asylum seekers as a criminal fraternity that needed constant surveillance. The creation of a separate system of welfare provision for asylum seekers, linked not to social care but to immigration control, and the introduction of a special asylum detention regime, ensured that, from now on, asylum seekers living in the UK are treated as a suspect community, a rightless group within a framework designed specifically to contain them.

But, of course, none of this was acknowledged by New Labour which introduced the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act as a progressive reform designed to bring about centralised control of an asylum system that had spun out of control under the previous Conservative administration. Whereas the Conservatives had an unplanned and piecemeal approach to asylum, New Labour would base its 'fairer, faster and firmer' approach on a system that was 'comprehensive and cohesive'.

It was certainly true that the Conservatives had sought to disvest the state of its responsibilities, shunting the costs of asylum seekers' welfare on to local government (an attractive option as most asylum seekers were accommodated, at that time, in Labour-controlled London boroughs) while presiding over an asylum claims system which was at the point of breakdown. And it was also true that it was the Conservatives who first began to divest asylum seekers of their welfare rights. At the beginning of the 1990s, a person's immigration status had very little direct bearing on entitlements to welfare and housing services. This gradually changed from 1993 to 1996, under the impact of three successive pieces of Conservative legislation. Prior to the 1996 Immigration and Asylum Act, asylum seekers were entitled to the same welfare benefits as UK citizens, but at 90 per cent of the normal rate; they could also claim housing benefit to cover rent. But the 1996 Act removed all rights to housing and financial support for asylum seekers who failed to claim asylum at a UK port of entry or who received a negative decision on their asylum claim or appeal. What this meant was that these asylum seekers had to be provided for by local authorities which, under the National Assistance Act 1945 and the Children's Act 1989, were compelled to provide accommodation and food for the destitute. London local authorities - where 90 per cent of all asylum seekers were housed - came to resent the burden asylum claimants placed on budgets. So, at a time when London property prices were booming and temporary accommodation was both costly and in short supply, London local authorites decided to divest themselves of their responsibilities and accelerated procedures whereby asylum seekers were unofficially dispersed into cheaper temporary accommodation outside London in seaside resorts on the South coast and even further afield.

New Labour, anxious to sell its asylum package to the liberal establishment as a progressive reform, argued its virtuous acknowledgement that asylum seekers were the responsibility of central and not local government. Yet, at the same time as re-establishing a national asylum system, New Labour was quite clear that its overall approach to asylum issues in future would be governed by the philosophy of 'deterrence' . For, according to the Home Office, traffickers from 'overpopulated' and socially and politically unstable 'countries with a weaker economy' were 'facilitating the migration of people who are not entitled to enter the UK', leading to a mushrooming of manifestly unfounded claims based on a 'tissue of lies' and the subsequent breakdown of the asylum system. Hence, in its 1998 White Paper on Immigration and Asylum, the Home Office argued that it was essential to introduce new legislation to 'minimise the attraction of the UK to economic migrants' by removing access to social benefits and making cash payments as small as possible. Home Secretary Jack Straw later made it clear that he viewed the introduction of vouchers as an essential measure as 'cash benefits in the social security system is a major pull factor that encourages fraudulent claims'. The only obligation that the state had towards asylum seekers who could not be wholly supported by friends or relatives, the White Paper implied, was to protect them from absolute destitution.

What signal does it send out to society when a Home Secretary broadcasts that the purpose of legislation is punitive, namely to deter the unfounded claims of bogus asylum seekers? The overall message - that asylum seekers, in future, will be treated as a suspect group - is one that fuels popular resentment and justifies prejudice. Held under suspicion of being illegal entrants and economic migrants, and guilty until proved innocent of lodging false claims, asylum seekers would henceforth be subjected to policies designed not to protect their human rights but to protect the public from them. They were to be enclosed within a separate system of administrative controls designed to act as a 'cordon sanitaire' around mainstream society, as though asylum seeking was an infectious disease that needed to be quarantined.

The philosophy outlined in the White Paper was soon followed by changes in the government's administrative apparatus, in line with the White Paper's proposal that 'all funding for support of asylum seekers should be brought into a single budget managed by the Home Office'. Since the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act, the housing and welfare of destitute asylum seekers has passed from the Department of Social Security (welfare benefits) and the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions (housing benefits) to the Home Office. In other words, the housing and social care of asylum seekers is no longer considered an issue of social welfare but one of immigration control, to be administered by Home Office officials trained to detect abusive claimants. Furthermore, an entirely new administrative body created within the Home Office's Immigration and Nationality Department has been established to oversee the new control mechanisms - the National Asylum Support Service (NASS).

Compulsion, exclusion and the denial of dignity

How does this 'philosophy of deterrence' translate into practice? What characterises a 'deterrent asylum system' ? In exchange for basic subsistence and shelter, asylum seekers must accept a regime which denies them access to the welfare state. In exchange for protection from homelessness and starvation, asylum seekers are, quite literally, stripped of human dignity and disvested of even the most basic civil and social rights. In this, the state's approach to asylum seekers welfare is simply without parallel in modern times. Indeed, the only parallel lies within the pre-welfare state administration of poor relief, most specifically the Poor Laws of 1834 which institutionalised the dreaded workhouse system, forcing paupers who passed the 'workhouse test' for indoor relief to submit to a regime so awful as to deter them from seeking refuge in the workhouse in the first place.

Just as that reforming Whig government of the early 19th century believed the deterrent workhouse regime to be a utilitarian response to increasing pauperisation, New Labour justified the creation of NASS, which provides asylum seekers with financial support (principally in the form of vouchers) and manages a national dispersal system, as a necessary administrative response to the housing shortage in London and the burden asylum seekers were placing on services in London and the South-East. And, just like their nineteenth century counterparts, who saw the grim reality of the workhouse as essential to deter all but the most desperate claimants, New Labour erected a philosophy to justify their approach to destitute asylum seekers, the philosophy of deterrence.

Today, destitute asylum seekers are not sent to the dreaded workhouse, but, instead, must apply to NASS for support, either for living costs, accommodation, or a package comprising both. Those asylum seekers who opt for both housing and welfare support , and pass the NASS destitution test, then receive the accommodation part of the package - namely transportation to accommodation in a part of the country selected by NASS. The fact that no consent is needed, and no choice is given, the fact that those who are absent from this accommodation for more than seven days lose all right to financial support, is the first aspect of New Labour's 'deterrent regime' and is modelled on the 'designated accommodation system' already practised in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Scandinavia. Here, asylum seekers are accommodated in reception centres and refugee hostels while their claims are considered.

While compelling asylum seekers to live in designated accommodation may seem bad enough, the dispersal system was backed up by changes in housing legislation. As Shelter, the major charity for the homeless, has shown, these legislative changes, by stripping asylum seekers of basic housing rights, gave landlords new freedoms of victimisation and harassment. Previously, homeless asylum seekers could apply to a local authority for assistance and gain access to the local council housing register. But the 1999 Act was complemented by amendments to the housing law which under the Housing Accommodation (Persons Subject to Immigration Control) (Amendment) (England) Order 1999, stripped asylum seekers of their former eligibility for council housing. In addition, the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act stipulated that anyone housed through the NASS scheme would be excluded from the security of tenure provisions of current housing legislation, ensuring that they could be legally evicted from accommodation with just seven days notice, and had no legal redress from landlord harassment. Thus, the cumulative effect of the 1999 Act and these new housing regulations was to strip asylum seekers of housing rights afforded to the rest of the community, including the homeless. Rendering asylum seekers en masse a group without legal redress, with no security of tenure and no protection from eviction is a fundamental underpinning of the NASS scheme. For NASS does not itself provide housing for dispersed asylum seekers but contracts out to 'accommodation providers' in public and private sectors to deliver support services, including housing and vouchers. Initially, NASS had hoped to work with 12 regional consortiums in dispersal areas, made up of local authorities and social or private landlords. But a variety of factors led to only 40 per cent of the beds needed for 2000/1 being provided by the consortiums, while a staggering 60 per cent were provided via direct contracts with private landlords. To make matters more complicated, the majority of private providers are accommodation agencies which subcontract accommodation from private landlords. This led Shelter to conclude that 'complicated sub-contracting arrangements, involving several tiers of sub-contractors are developing with small landlords becoming subcontractors without any checks being made about their past record or suitability.'

The state programme of disvesting asylum seekers of basic civil rights is well understood in the twilight zones of the unregulated private housing sector, where asylum seekers huddled in bedsits, shared houses, overcrowded hostels and bed and breakfasts, face private landlords who see in them a lucrative business opportunity. According to Shelter, new landlords are entering the market in order to enter into profitable contracts to provide accommodation for asylum seekers who are actually preferred to other groups precisely because of their rightlessness and their inability to effectively complain. Asylum seekers have now become the 'new exploited homeless'.

Some of the worst examples of abuse come from the large hostels where hundreds of asylum seekers are herded into dormitory conditions. Under New Labour's 'deterrent' regime, food is often inedible, sanitation and hygiene deplorable, heating insufficient and fire and safety regulations ignored. Scarcely any shred of dignity is left to the asylum seeker. Nor is their any privacy in their meagre living space, which can be searched at a moment's notice by police and immigration officials to ensure that only the person designated to live at the accommodation, is actually there. And private landlords, too, assume this right. Hence in Liverpool, residents of two tower blocks (deemed unfit for council tenants), the Landmark and the Inn on the Park, have been forced to sign contracts saying that they can have no visitors without the prior consent of the landlord. Individual rooms have no locks and staff have access to all flats. Inmates who complain are threatened with violence or evictions.

This is an all too common story. More and more protests are erupting as the 'politics of deterrence' provokes the politics of defiance. In September 2000, following a series of hunger-strikes at an asylum hostel in Langley Green, West Midlands, inmates held a roof-top protest and occupied the main road to protest at cramped living conditions, poor food and inadequate health care. There have been at least two mass protests at the Angel Heights Hostel in Newcastle, but the punishment for protest has been the arrest of the Iraqi Kurds deemed ringleaders. And in January 20001, asylum seekers at the International Hostel in Leicester, who for months had complained about severe problems of hygiene, inadequate heating and poor food at this run-down former hotel, took their beds out on to the streets in protest at conditions that were amongst the factors leading a young Iranian to commit suicide. 'We came to England to seek safety but have been treated worse than animals' commented one asylum seeker. By introducing deterrent measures which strip people of basic civil rights, the state has issued private landlords with a charter for abuse and victimisation as well as, incidentally, landlord fraud.* Such is the first component of New Labour's 'deterrent regime'.

Stigmatisation through voucher branding

The replacement of cash benefits as of 3 April 2000, by NASS Vouchers, only redeemable by a named recipient at a post office, is the next component of the 'deterrence regime'. Modelled on existing schemes in Switzerland an Germany, vouchers were expressly introduced by Straw to stop what he described as the phenomenon of 'asylum shopping' in which asylum seekers are said to shop around for the European country with the best and most easily obtainable social security benefits. Vouchers are worth only 70 per cent of income support (a benefit of last resort to prevent destitution), amounting to just 36.54 per week for a single person over 25 (10 of which is in cash) and must be spent at designated supermarkets where any change for the portion of vouchers that are unused is pocketed by the retailer.

As with the dispersal system, vouchers were not strictly the invention of New Labour, for under the previous Conservative asylum system, some local authorities had resorted to issuing vouchers to meet their financial obligations to destitute asylum seekers. But what is different today is that vouchers are issued by the government as part of a national scheme linked to deterrence. The government has justified the introduction of vouchers as an anti-fraud measure; for, in Straw's words, 'cash benefits in the social security system is a major pull factor that encourages fraudulent claims'.

Just as NASS contracts out the provision of accommodation, the voucher system has been contracted out to the French multinational, Sodexo Pass International, which already operates a similar scheme in Germany where vouchers were introduced in the 1990s as an essential component of the 'politics of dissuasion' The German scheme was criticised as a regression from inclusive post-war social security provisions, reflecting the constitutional protection of human dignity, towards a system based on the type of compulsion, exclusion and denial of dignity last seen under National Socialism. For, just as the pink triangle and the yellow star of David marked out Jews and Gays as 'deviant', vouchers brand asylum seekers as fraudsters. Given that no other social group in Europe today is given welfare benefits in voucher form, commentators are quite right to point out that they are, in essence, discriminatory and regressive. In the UK, the only comparison that can be made in post-war times, as the leader of the Transport and General Workers Union Bill Morris has pointed out, is with the post-war token system for poor children to obtain milk and meals in schools. And this was subsequently abolished by the Labour government because of the stigma it attached to the children of the poor who would be beaten and taunted by other kids as they queued up with their tokens at school.

While the politics of deterrence leads to the degrading voucher system, the government devalues the state by making it the instrument of the systematic humiliation and stigmatisation of asylum seekers. No one who has witnessed asylum seekers, painfully aware of drawing attention to themselves as they attempt to calculate the cost of goods to the last penny, all under the disapproving eye of other shoppers who often comment on the appropriateness of what food can be bought with vouchers, can fail to be aware of this. When the government sets out to treat a diverse social group - including pregnant women, unaccompanied children, the chronically sick, torture victims, the disabled - as though they were an army of calculating fraudsters shopping around Europe (presumably on the back of lorries) for state welfare systems to rip off, it is inevitable that the result will be untold misery: children unable to go to school because parents don't have the bus fare; old people left without warm clothing for the winter because they live on half what a UK pensioner has, disabled people who do not enjoy the same benefit as disabled citizens and cannot afford the specialist items they need; mothers of new-born children who have no cash to purchase the essential baby equipment that other parents take for granted. Research by the King's Fund has concluded that there is a marked deterioration in asylum seekers' mental health in the first six months of their stay, particularly in the form of depression and anxiety. Such mental health problems are a direct result of the politics of deterrence, as those who must shop with vouchers and who are ferried around the country, not knowing where they will end up experience disorientation, uncertainty, loneliness and isolation. Grinding down the victims of torture, children, the elderly, is, I suppose, the harsh medicine that unctious politicians prescribe for the protection of the deserving majority from the undeserving poor who, incidentally, happen also to be foreigners.

Internment and xenophobia

At the same time as the 1998 White Paper, the government also initiated a major review of existing facilities within the immigration and prison services, with the express aim of identifying new sites in which to detain asylum seekers arriving at UK ports and airports. Having created a new asylum detention centre at a former military barracks in Oakington in which to hold 400 asylum seekers, including for the first time women and children, whose applications for asylum would be fast-tracked; having transformed Aldington prison, near Ashford, into a special detention centre for asylum seekers; having commandeered a wing of South Yorkshire's Lindholme prison for the same purpose, the Home Office was, by January 2001, ready to set specific targets for detention and removal, announcing that it would double the number of asylum seekers and immigrants it detains and more than double the numbers it removes from the country.

What lies behind this extraordinary attempt to create a separate prison regime for the ever-increasing number of asylum seekers detained at the point of arrival in the UK? How, indeed, can democratic European states justify imprisoning individuals who have not been tried before a court for a specific criminal offence but are targeted by the state and committed to prison on suspicion alone?

In fact, the imprisonment of asylum seekers in this way is not new. Part of New Labour's justification for the creation of a factory system for the detention and removal of asylum seekers was the mess left by the previous Conservative administration. Despite the Conservatives' current call for the mandatory detention of all those who apply for asylum in the UK, they presided over chaotic detention arrangements which developed ad hoc and piecemeal. While there were small detention centres near airports and, by 1993, a new purpose-built high-security immigration and detention centre at Campsfield House, Oxford, the vast majority of an ever-increasing population of immigration detainees were held in existing prisons, often for extremely long periods of time. Both within Campsfield House and ordinary prisons, asylum seekers were denied the right to activity or meaningful employment and treated, in many respects, far worse that those convicted of a crime, as has been acknowledged by the Chief Inspector of Prisons.

New Labour, then, in attempting to cohere the elements of these ad hoc arrangements into a special asylum prison regime linked to the politics of deterrence is attempting to design something markedly different. And, once again, it is a system that has the mark of the EU, designed as it is to harmonise UK practices with those already existing on the Continent where asylum seekers are imprisoned at different stages of the asylum process. It is a system characterised by application centres for fast track arrivals; special holding centres for interning problem applicants; discrete prisons close to airports, where asylum seekers are held pending deportation. What results in all EU member states, is a separate prison complex for asylum seekers, backed-up by specific criminal legal measures in a Euro-wide system of control and surveillance. The use of measures germane to serious criminal investigation, such as the compulsory fingerprinting of all asylum seekers, has become routine, as has the complete disregard for civil liberties in the storing of personal data on asylum seekers on the Schengen Information System. This, the EU's largest computer database, can be accessed from 50,000 terminals across Europe. As around 90 per cent of the information stored on it concerns immigration rather than criminal cases, and as this database is considered to be at the heart of the EU's internal security system, it follows that the EU considers the movement of the world's 125 million displaced people the most important security issue it faces.

By detaining vast numbers of asylum seekers, the UK government replicates the EU's linkage of asylum with internal security on the domestic plane. Little by little, step by step, New Labour implements measures that target asylum seekers, enclosing them in a separate system of surveillance and control. But even as it creates what is, in effect, a separate police state for asylum seekers, New Labour denies that it is doing so, still continuing as a signatory to the UN Geneva Convention despite the fact that Article 31 expressly states that asylum seekers should not be criminalised for entering a country illegally. But, then, the government gets around such unpalatable truths with characteristic spin and subterfuge, denying, for instance, that it operates a White List of Safe Countries (nearly all those sent to Oakington are eastern European, mostly Roma); that asylum seekers sent to Oakington House are being interned for the crime of illegal entry (the centre is merely to fast track manifestly unfounded claims) that asylum seekers being imprisoned at all. Thus, when the Oakington detention centre was opened, the Home Office described it as a 'privately run reception facility'; not so much a prison as a hotel, depicting inmates (who are not allowed to leave or move between buildings unless escorted by security guards), not as prisoners but as 'guests'.

In fact, New Labour is right. These so-called guests are not prisoners under domestic UK law, for then a court would have had to detain them for a specific criminal offence. The unpalatable truth that must be camouflaged is that detained asylum seekers are internees - and internment is a war-time measure usually invoked against 'enemy aliens' (yet more proof of New Labour has gone to war with the displaced people of the world). Internees are separated from other prisoners in that they are usually committed to detention by 'emergency powers' such as those that obtained during the first and second world war, or under the Prevention of Terrorism Act or during the 1991 Gulf war, when male Iraqi students were interned in British jails.

In Italy, with its experience of fascism, progressives within the criminal justice system have argued that the imprisonment of asylum seekers constitutes internment: the Italian Association of Democratic Magistrates, for instance, has denounced the creation of a 'special law regime for foreigners' as a threat to democracy. But in the UK, a New Labour government which purports to be progressive seems to have little regard for democratic traditions as well as scant historical awareness, apparantly oblivious to the direct link between the current onslaught against asylum seekers and the internment of Jewish refugees during the first and the second world war. But then, this lack of historical and political recall is hardly surprising given that the government's approach to asylum is characterised by schizophrenia. By its actions and policies, New Labour treats asylum seekers as though they were enemy aliens and a threat to national security; yet, government ministers repeat the mantra that they welcome 'genuine refugees' (without expressly detailing just how). By its language, New Labour declares itself a government opposed to institutional racism, yet by its actions it embraces the New Racism, interning asylum seekers and legitimising the increasingly hysterical press climate against new arrivals. Press hysteria has been further legitimised by the passing of the Terrorism Act 2001. This, the first permanent anti-terrorism law in 25 years, which specifically targets exile organisations, members of which could, in future, have refugee status withheld or withdrawn if found guilty of the specific offence of conspiracy to commit crimes abroad. Even as Macpherson in his report on the death of Steven Lawrence warned of the danger of stereotyping black communities as criminal, the government gave legitimacy to a new set of stereotypes: asylum seekers are phonoies and fraudsters; refugees are terrorists and the 'enemy within'