During the recent Holocaust memorial week, the following question was posed many times in the media: has humanity learned the lessons of the Nazi genocide? The question is hard to answer in sound-bites. In fact, there was very little discussion about what the lessons might be.
One of the big lessons about what the Nazis did to the Jews, the gypsies, and other people in Europe, is that the ground was prepared for genocide by years of state-sponsored discrimination and prejudice.
The Jews and the gypsies were dehumanised in propaganda long before they were exterminated. People had been trained in the idea that the lives of certain people were meaningless and worthless.
To see the Tories and New Labour in competition over which party can be toughest on asylum seekers, it is clear that the politicians have not thought about, let alone learned, that lesson.
They are preparing the ground for a horrendous backlash against asylum seekers — not another Holocaust, to be sure, but one that will go far beyond pockets of Daily Mail-inspired prejudice. Unless the labour movement and anti-racist campaigners can stop the anti-asylum prejudice, there will be an even steeper rise in violent attacks against asylum seekers.
Michael Howard’s recent promise to put a limit on the number of asylum seekers being allowed into the country is the Tories’ latest policy offering, but it follows any number of similar tough policies by New Labour. The Tories’ proposal would probably be accepted by the Government if they thought they could get away with it, and round human rights law.
New Labour and the Tories say they are not racist, they merely want to stop “illegals”, to protect “community relations” (David Blunkett) and look after the interests of the “British taxpayer”. This is nonsense.
What if you are an asylum seeker? How would Britain’s asylum policy seem to you? Would it seem neutral and fair? Or would it seem to be — just what it is — demeaning, hurtful, frustrating… racist?
Would you like to be an unperson? How would you like to be the asylum seeker who, if Michael Howard got his way, might be turned away immediately: “Sorry too many claims have been made this week, we cannot hear yours.”
Asylum seekeers are no longer treated as people. They are no longer women who have been raped in the Congo or children whose fathers have been tortured by the Syrian government. The eight-year-old Colombian boy who has learned to tap dance at his British primary school and might just as well never have been introduced to his new school friends.
They have no voice.
They are matters to be dealt with as swiftly as can be by a bureaucracy.
The examples above are all people who have been in the press recently. They are real people, people who have friends and family just like us. Yet all of them face deportation because their “claim” does not pass muster. Either they did not understand the rules, or they failed to follow the rules, or they were simply not dealt with fairly by the current asylum system.
Michael Howard says there are millions who want to get into Britain. But wouldn’t ordinary human empathy deduce that most people — even people who are deemed “illegal” under existing tough asylum laws — would not lightly decide to leave their country, their family and friends, and come to Britain? They would far rather their “own” country was safer, richer, democratic.
No one really wants to stand shivering on street corners in a thin jacket selling cheap toys. Or wander the streets with nothing to do because they can’t work. Or have foul abuse shouted at them.
According to New Labour and the Tories, no asylum seeker is allowed to be a lover, a husband, a daughter, or even a “patriot”. They are only a “claim”. If you lodge your claim late, you will be sent back to where you came from, irrespective of the scars on your back or your fragile mental health.
That is because you had the misfortune to be born in a place beyond Europe, a place like Africa, a place New Labour says it really wants to lift out of poverty.
Maybe all they really want to do is exploit the oil and minerals and the agricultural products of Africa, and to care as little as possible about its people.