BY DAVID BACON
LONDON — The British Midlands are being engulfed by race riots, pitting the children of whites who lost jobs in the country's devastating deindustrialisation against sons and daughters of those who came to fill service jobs in the decades after the second world war.
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.
On April 6, 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? Or those who benefit from the existing world economy, where privatisation and debt in developing countries make migration a preferable, and sometimes the only, option for those seeking economic survival?
On the day the verdict was announced, I interviewed two campaigners in London for the National Assembly Against Racism — Jude Woodward and Sabi Dalu — key organisers in the effort to defend the rights of asylum-seekers.
They described the connections between racism and anti-immigrant hysteria in Britain, and how they've been used for political purposes during the country's recent election campaigns.
"This incident was an absolutely horrendous tragedy", said Woodward. "And I think it was completely shocking for everybody in this country, including even people who had been very hostile to asylum seekers and new migrants.
"The deaths of these 58 Chinese people took place at the end of a 9-month, sustained hostile press and media campaign against new migrants, asylum seekers. And although these terrible deaths didn't stop that completely, they did change the public mood. People began to think that perhaps this hostility had gone too far — that the sense of persecution was actually driving people to their deaths."
Woodward 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 re-election by a big majority. But Woodward says the campaign left a residue of increased racism.
"The fact is that European policy on immigration has really changed since the 1980s, and now almost all legal ways of coming to Europe have been closed off in line with protocols agreed upon at a European level.
"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 centre left in British politics, like the Labour Party and the Labour government, have tended to buy into this argument rather then stand up to it. That's what's fed the public mood."
"If you're in China, you can't walk into the British embassy and say, 'I would like a visa to come to Britain to claim asylum'", said Woodward. "No such visa exists."
"You can get a visitor's visa if you're very lucky and if you've got a relative here and can prove it. You can get a student visa if you can show that you have a college to come to, a means of supporting yourself, and a sponsor here who will support your application. You can get a visa to marry somebody here, but that is extremely difficult and can take several years. If you're coming for any other reason, including fleeing the most direct political persecution, the only way to get here is clandestinely — illegally."
This policy against asylum seekers has angered Britain's immigrant communities.
"There's been tremendous concern amongst black people", says Sabi Dalu, using the term "black" to refer to all people of colour, including those of Asian, African and Caribbean ancestry. "There have been relentless attacks on asylum seekers and immigrants, the biggest since the 1960s and '70s 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.
"Politicians are looking for a way to divert attention from their own mismanagement of economic problems and resources", Dalu said.
On Question Time a woman living in South London said asylum seekers are being prioritised over her for housing. "Both residents and immigrants need housing", said Dalu, "and this competition stems from the government's failure to put resources into the housing sector. To avoid responsibility for this, asylum seekers are scapegoated."
"Even the use of the term illegal immigrants reflects that racism", Woodward argued. "Many people here are overstayers, who have come here on a short term visa and then stay after it expires. The largest group like this are Australians. But there's no great outrage about the large number of Australians flooding the UK because they're white."
"The real agenda in this discussion is about race and racism — it's not about how many people this little country can hold. It's about what kind and what colour of people they want to let in."
"Racism doesn't exist just within Western, industrialised societies", Woodward said, "but in the relationship between those countries and the rest of the world — the black majority of the human race."
"The problem is the unequal distribution of wealth globally, which is clearly linked with the Third World debt to the West. This causes many of the harsh conditions and lack of economic opportunity in those countries which send migrants."
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."
"Studies have shown that even if you liberalise immigration laws dramatically, there would be an immediate rush of people coming here, but then it would fall off. You would have much the same level of migration that exists now. Immigration law doesn't really have a very big effect on migration levels, but on the status of people once they're here."
Since the 1980s, the European Union has tried to harmonise the different immigration policies of member countries, and as a result, all members have tightened immigration policies until virtually no-one is allowed in.
Now, in the last few years, those policies are being questioned. Demographically and economically, Europe needs a renewal of its labour 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 to 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.