Refugee solidarity is a trade union issue


“Across the trade union movement, it’s incumbent on us to mobilise our members to resist and organise against the Nationalities and Borders’ Act whenever there’s an opportunity.”

By Emma Rose, NEU

In Calais, less than 30 miles from the UK border, you will find hundreds of people who have suffered the worst things that can happen to human beings in this world: they have seen their families killed; they have suffered torture; they have been sold as slaves; they are the victims of war and persecution. You will find hundreds of people who had no choice but to leave home, hundreds of people in search of sanctuary.

In November of this year, 15 NEU members from across the West Midlands went on a delegation to volunteer with Care4Calais – to deliver aid, bring solidarity from our union to those living there and learn more about the reality of the refugee crisis, to enable us to counter the government and media’s narrative that seeks to dehumanise refugees and portray them as criminals.

Why is this important for us in the trade union movement? We face a government who want to whip up racism, hatred of and contempt for refugees, because they want to pin the blame for the fact that you have to wait to get a GP appointment, that you can’t access affordable social housing, that your child’s class sizes are too big on the most vulnerable people arriving desperate in dinghies in Dover, rather than admit it’s due to them and their failed programme of austerity.

You may have seen the cartoon where a Rupert Murdoch-esque figure sits with a plate piled high with biscuits, between a worker with one biscuit and an asylum seeker with none, and says to the worker, ‘careful mate, that foreigner wants your cookie’.

There are powerful voices who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and keeping the gaze of the nation firmly fixed on the manufactured crisis on the Kent coastline rather than the very real crisis of Dickensian levels of poverty that this government has pushed millions of people into. So, we have to raise our voices and tell the truth.

The Nationality and Borders’ Act introduced a two-tier asylum system, meaning that those arriving here by ‘irregular means’ may receive, and in fact already are receiving, less protection and support. The government maintain that refugees shouldn’t arrive in the UK in small boats, but for the majority of refugees, crossing the Channel in a small boat and then claiming asylum on arrival is the only route available. And the truth is that people in desperate situations will continue to risk their lives to find safety until there’s a safer option.

If the government want people to arrive here by ‘regular means’ to claim asylum, then they need to create safe routes to be able to do that. Suella Braverman had to admit recently that the only way to claim asylum was to be physically present in the UK, yet, since August 2021, just 4 Afghan refugees have been brought to safety in the UK through the government’s ‘flagship’ settlement scheme.

We’ve seen that travel visas can work for Ukrainian refugees: Ukrainians haven’t had to get into small boats; Ukrainians haven’t had to pay people smugglers. It’s entirely within the UK government’s power to prevent further deaths in the English Channel. We need to put pressure on them to offer safe routes to claiming asylum to all refugees fleeing war and persecution.

Across the trade union movement, it’s incumbent on us to mobilise our members to resist and organise against the Nationalities and Borders’ Act whenever there’s an opportunity.

When the seven asylum seekers were dragged by their hair, hands and feet shackled, onto the flight to Rwanda, it could have been members of our unions who were required to take them out of their cells in the detention centre, drive the buses to the airport, be prepared to fly the plane. These workers were placed in an invidious position. Our response must be to challenge this collectively.

Let’s talk in our union branches about the refugee crisis – call for an end to war, an end to the military support and arms sales in countries involved in foreign military aggression or domestic oppression that leads to people having no choice but to leave their homes – and empower workers in our unions to challenge aspects of the Nationalities and Borders’ Act that are potentially in breach of international law or the ECHR.

As unions, we need to be prepared to mount legal challenges, while recognising that mobilising our members to challenge the ‘hostile environment’ and advocate on behalf of refugees is where we find our strength. 

Every member of the recent Care4Calais delegation returned transformed and determined to fight to create a society that welcomes refugees, so now let’s build this movement wider.

Featured image: Care 4 Calais direct provision. Photo credit: Care 4 Calais

Leave a Reply