The issue of small boat crossings is the cutting edge of an overall racist campaign – Diane Abbott MP


“We need to defend the asylum-seekers and their rights, and call out all the reactionary politicians who are willing to play roulette with people’s lives.”

By Diane Abbott MP

It is now widely recognised that the Tory campaign to ‘stop the boats’ is a purely political one. It is not really intended as an effective policy as it clearly unworkable. Instead, it is a campaign of distraction from the effects of their own failed policy, a vile card played in the electoral game of saving their seats.

But it must also be acknowledged that their anti-refugees policy, as sickening as it is, forms only part of their overall racist agenda. The demonisation and dehumanisation of refugees and asylum-seekers is the leading edge of this overall campaign. It is important to oppose it for the refugees themselves, but also for the type of society we too easily become if we allow it to pass unopposed.

There are also the wider issues of racism. Because if they succeed in this campaign, and in winning broad support for their policies, they will not rest. Instead, they will move on to other areas, migration in general, the rights of people not born here but legally entitled to be here, ‘health tourism’, draconian use of stop and search, overt discrimination in housing, education and the workplace, and so on.

All of these are currently features of the existing political landscape. This is at the same time we have government propagandists and ministers who claim that racism does not exist in this country, and certainly not institutional racism. But these people, if they achieve success on their anti-refugee campaign will feel emboldened and move on to all these other issues in due course and make them substantially worse as they do.

This is why a proper and full-throated response is needed to this completely reactionary campaign. We may have been defeated on the legislative front, even though there was a strong argument to defy the Immigration Bill as the Tory 2019 manifesto contained nothing like this terrible policy. But policy is not solely decided in parliament. Reality intervenes.

That reality includes widespread disgust at the treatment of the asylum-seekers briefly incarcerated on the Bibby Stockholm as well as the authorities’ reluctant acceptance that they could not be held there while there was an outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease. The government is also experiencing serious difficulties in the courts, because the policies of incarceration, deliberate delays in processing claims and the threat of deportation to Rwanda or beyond are in flagrant breach of international law.

The response of some Tories to these legal challenges is to demonise those upholding the law, including lawyers here as well as the ECHR. Threats to leave the ECHR are wild and foolish, which is probably understood by at least some of those making the threats.

The human rights provisions of international law upheld by the ECHR have already been incorporated into British law. At the same, the ECHR is central to oversight of the Good Friday Agreement. Pulling out of the ECHR, as some Tories put it, would collapse the GFA, sparking a trade war with the EU, provoking the wrath of the US who have already made their position very clear, and antagonise the vast majority of the population in Ireland, who are overwhelmingly committed to the Agreement.

It is a vastly unacknowledged fact that attitudes to immigration have undergone a sea-change over the last 10 years, and for the better. But because some frontbench politicians want to confuse the issue of small boats with the unscrupulous gangs operating them, the public is less firm on this issue. That is why the reactionaries see it as a cutting-edge issue. It is disgraceful to respond to the drowning of people in small boats to talk solely about prosecuting the gangs. Shameful.

Instead, we should be clear about the real character of this Tory-led campaign and its purpose. We need to defend the asylum-seekers and their rights, and call out all the reactionary politicians who are willing to play roulette with people’s lives.

Diane Abbott MP addresses a Stand Up to Racism demo.

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