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This disgraceful episode is the inevitable consequence of the 'hostile environment' policy – Nadia Jama on #Jamaica50

” Labour can’t return to the politics of printing “immigration controls” on a mug to appease the tabloids & the far-right. Labour should continue to call time on racism.”

Nadia Jama, BAME Officer, Sheffield Central CLP

Today (Tuesday), a plane bound for Jamaica will (in defiance of a court order) deport 50 so-called “foreign nationals” for crimes committed in the UK.

Except that many people on the flight have lived in Britain since they were children. For all intents and purposes they have been here their entire lives, British in every sense except for missing documentation (and actually, in some cases, the papers they provided – marriage certificates and birth certificates for themselves and their children – were ludicrously rejected by the Home Office). Because of that, many on the plane will be sent to a country which was at best a distant memory to them and at worst a completely foreign land.

All this comes in the wake of the Windrush scandal, in which at least 83 Windrush migrants were wrongly deported. Like the passengers on the plane, they were also without the paperwork needed to prove they belonged here, although they never legally required it in the first place. As Theresa May said in an interview at the time, ‘they are as British as you or I’. It’s hard not to conclude, then, that they were deported because of the colour of their skin.

These are two situations in which Black British people will have been forcibly removed from the country because they couldn’t prove to the Home Office’s satisfaction – and the Home Office is increasingly hard to satisfy – that they had the right to be here. Both disgraceful episodes are the inevitable consequences of the government’s hostile environment policy – a policy which has turned public sector workers, landlords and lecturers into border guards, which has threateningly paraded “Go Home” vans around migrant communities, and which has incentivised Home Office staffs’ scepticism of legitimate visa and asylum applications.     

The current leadership of the Labour Party has forcefully opposed the policy, with Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, strongly speaking out about the Windrush scandal. In the last week, Nadia Whittome has also organised a letter against the latest deportations to Jamaica. Notably, Jeremy Corbyn’s first act as leader was to speak at a rally for migrant rights. In both the 2017 and 2019 manifestos, the party completely rejected the politics of scapegoating which have driven the Tory’s anti-migrant agenda.

It’s important to remember this wasn’t always the case. It was actually Gordon Brown’s government who originated the term ‘hostile environment’. Key figures on the right of the party have a history of blaming immigrants for the problems communities face, from David Blunkett’s comments on migrant children “swamping” schools, Margaret Hodge’s remarks on immigration and the housing crisis, to Liam Byrne’s disgraceful Hodge Hill campaign leaflets.

This has often been paired with an “enemy within” narrative which has specifically targeted the Muslim community. Phil Woolas’s infamous flyer, which claimed that Islamic “extremists are trying to hijack this election”, is perhaps the most heinous example, although let’s not also forget New Labour’s more insidious ‘Prevent’ strategy. The legislation pre-empted the hostile environment for migrants, instead compelling public sector workers, teachers and lecturers to report their (usually Muslim) service users and students for suspicious “extremist” activities.

We can’t return to these politics – the politics of printing “immigration controls” on a mug to appease the tabloids, the fascists, and the far-right. Labour should build on the record of the last five years and continue to call time on racism.

This will become even more important in the coming months and years as Boris Johnson implements his Brexit plans. Whereas a Labour Brexit would have sought to defend the living standards of the many, any Johnson trade deal with Trump is likely to result in a fire sale of public assets, a bonfire of workers’ rights, and a scorched earth policy of even more cuts. As the consequences hit the pockets of the public, the Tories will need someone to blame. We should expect an intensification of the hostile environment.

Labour must stay firm in its opposition. There are those who think we can win on our anti-austerity politics only if we make concessions to this racist agenda. But if we give ground on immigration, it will weaken our economic arguments. If we concede that immigrants force down wages or take jobs, opponents of our radical plans will ask why we should bother with a living wage or investing in the economy when we could simply introduce harsher visa restrictions. 

We cannot and should not give an inch to anti-immigration sentiment because migrants aren’t the problem with our economy and our society; the austerity agenda is. To claim otherwise is a divide and rule distraction. It lets bosses off the hook at the same time as it immorally throws a large section of our people under the bus. 

Anti-racism must be at the core of our party platform. We need to develop a clear idea of what a progressive immigration policy looks like outside of the European Union, and we need to understand the connections between the migrant crisis we face and the refugees of climate catastrophe and the wars waged in the Middle East and Libya. This means building on – not junking – the left internationalism, socialism and environmentalism of the last five years. It’s only by developing these arguments and creating unity – not division – in our working class communities, that we can really bring the fight to the Tories.

  • Nadia Jama is Sheffield Central CLP Bame Officer. She is currently seeking nominations for Labour’s NEC as a CLP rep (see here.)

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