Our Passports on our Faces: Racism and Refugees


Address to the British Refugee Council 7 November 1991

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am only too conscious that I am speaking to an audience who are probably more conversant with the ‘refugee question’ than I am, who have a better understanding of the workings, the logistics of the Asylum Bill (with its fast-track-system, its finger-printing, and its removal of legal aid) than I have. And so, I want to talk to you from a different perspective, from a different point of view – as an exile, a refugee, from the Third World, a black. And the first thing that occurs to me, my first reaction to the government’s talk of an Asylum Bill and the press orchestration, massaging of public opinion that accompanied it – with its stories of Invasions, Hordes, Floods, Swamps, Bogus migrants, Cheats, Liars, Scroungers – my first reaction was: Christ, they are doing it again – the government and the gutter press to begin with, but soon everybody will be jumping on the band-wagon – they are doing it again, creating a climate of febrile racism, giving a fillip to fascism and eroding once more the tenuous fabric of a multiracial society. 

You know, this country has never faced up to its racism, never learnt its lessons. We went through these same things – government humbug and hypocrisy (both Labour and Tory), scare stories by the press, rationalisations by the intellectual Right – the same things – in ’62 and ’64 and ’65 and ’68 and ’71 with the Commonwealth Immigration Acts. Then, too, the Government pretended that it was talking about Commonwealth immigrants per se, when it meant immigrants from the black Commonwealth – like it now talks about refugees qua refugees, when it means refugees from the Third World. This is not just a harmless euphemism but a contrived double-speak, which allows you to keep your virtue even as you conceal your weakness. So that Mr. Baker can declare ‘I am not a racist. I don’t want Poles any more than I want Zaireans.’ But it is the Zaireans who are fleeing a totalitarian regime, and not the Poles. (The Poles in fact have stopped fleeing their regime – only ten Poles sought asylum up to July this year). And it is Europe and the US that have kept Mobutu in power for the last 26 years. 

And today again, as in the ’60s, we are back to the numbers game. Then the argument was that fewer numbers (of blacks) made for better race relations. Without integration’, ran Mr. Hattersley’s syllogism, ‘limitation is inexcusable: without limitation, integration is impossible’. Today the argument is that fewer refugees means less fascism. ‘If we fail in our control efforts,’ said Mr. Major at the Luxembourg Summit of European Heads of States, ‘we risk fuelling the far-Right.’ Refugees, he might have said, taking a leaf from his predecessor’s book, are the oxygen of fascism. The fewer the refugees, the fewer the people for fascists to attack – which leads us to the inexorable conclusion: no refugees, no fascists – which is stupid. 

It is the sort of argument that gives respectability to racism, puts the burden of racism on the refugees and gives credibility to fascism. It is the sort of argument that allows one to overlook the wholly irresponsible, totally racist action of the German Government when, instead of protecting the refugee hostels in Hoyerswerda against fascist attack and arresting the attackers, it removed the attacked to refugee camps. It is precisely that sort of action on the part of governments that fuels the far Right coupled with the sort of active inaction – that the Bonn government entered into when it declared that it could do little to halt the spate of vicious racist attacks on foreigners. ‘There can be no federal initiative’, said Dieter Vogel, a government spokesman ‘in the sense that we could say we will make sure this does not happen again.’ It was left to a German police trades union to suggest that the problem could be brought under control if the refugees were housed in ‘concentrated accommodation’. The German government, in effect, has put its imprimatur on fascist attacks and blames the victims when it has only itself to blame. 

And, of course, as in the ’60s and ’70s, the politicians are once more getting ready to play the race card in the coming election. In 1964 it was Peter Griffiths and Smethwick and the slogan was: ‘If you want a nigger neighbour, vote Labour.’ In 1978 it was Mrs. Thatcher, and her line ran ‘this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture’. In 1991 we have Mr. Major saying ‘We must not remain wide open to all comers simply because Paris, Rome and London seem more attractive than Bombay or Algiers.’ And Mr. Lloyd, paraphrasing it for us in a radio interview, said ‘We can’t have the whole of Asia and Africa coming to live in London’. And, judging from past history, if Labour see that the Tories are getting electoral mileage by playing the race card, they wont hesitate to use it either. 

But we are not just going over the same ground as in the ’60s and ’70s, we are not just regurgitating the racism of that period. We are also adding to it, compounding it, by having to borrow from other European racisms, by colluding with the lowest common denominators of French and German racism in the process of forging a common European policy on refugees and asylum-seekers. 

And this new, common, market racism, this new pan-European racism, has given rise to a whole new set of myths and stereotypes, its own brand of institutionalised racism and gives rise to the creation of a new pan-European fascism. The myth has been created, for instance, that the vast majority of refugees who come to Europe are bogus, that they are here for the money, that they are economic refugees and not political refugees. And I do not want to contest this on the basis of figures, statistics – that has already been done – but on the basis that the distinction between economic and political refugee, when applied to the Third World, is a fallacious one (manufactured, incidentally, by the Germans in 1987 when they wanted to get rid of the Tamils). It is fallacious because it overlooks the whole process through which refugees are thrown up in the Third World. Refugees are made, not born. But what makes a refugee? What makes for the politics in our countries that makes a refugee? To understand that, one has to understand the monolithic nature of the political world we are moving into, the so-called New World Order. (It is no accident that the number of political refugees has increased dramatically in the past year.) That New World Order seals the end of the Third World. 

There is no Third World any more. The Third World is an aspect of the First World, a consequence of the First World, the backyard, the back-side of the First World. The governments of the Third World are not self-governing any more, if they ever were. Their regimes are not regimes chosen by the people. And yet they stay in power because they open up their countries to Western investment, provide markets for Western goods and services, provide a dumping place for Western waste, a venue for Western charity. 

Or, if these regimes want to serve their own people, they are hog-tied by aid and strangled by debt and are forced by IMF and World Bank policies to put their countries in hock again. Take Guyana, for instance, which one would expect should belong to the Guyanese, especially after independence. But all that has happened is that it has gone from Bookers’ Guyana, sugar producing Guyana, to Beaverbrook’s Guyana, selling off its virgin forests and timber reserves (and its native tribes) to Lord Beaverbrook’s United Dutch Group – because that is the only way, the IMF has decided, that it can pay off its debt which amounts to something like $2,000 per person. 

Or look at the way that First World trade policies affect the Third world. Take the common Agricultural Policy. In a talk given to the Royal Society, Sir James Goldsmith made a brilliant analysis of the way the CAP, by going for maximum production (as opposed to optimum production), creates surpluses that are then dumped on poorer nations – causing ‘terrible damage to rural populations and social structures’. The words are his. And GATT policies, he said, by creating a free and competitive world market in agriculture would result in whole Third World populations being uprooted and swept into urban slums’. Again the words are his. And Sir James concluded with a quote from Carla Hills, the American GATT representative, who, testifying before a Senate Commitee, said: “Think of me as the US Trade Representative with a crowbar, where we are prising open markets, keeping them open so that our private sector can take advantage of them’. 

Free market economics have spelt the death of our countries. They create ecological devastation, population displacement and poverty for the many and riches for the few. And poverty creates political strife and political repression – and political repression creates political refugees. 

In distinguishing between economic migrants and political refugees, therefore, you have missed out a whole series of steps in the process of how economic refugees become political refugees and you have missed out on the basic truth: that your economics creates our politics. Hence the intake of refugees must be based on need, not numbers. 

There are other misconceptions, less grievous ones – that refugees could move, for instance, from one part of their country to another for asylum. Often this is not the case. Mr. Baker, I think, suggested that Tamils could move from the north to the south of Sri Lanka to escape persecution. But if you are fighting for civil rights for all, for a democratic system, and standing up to state repression which in Sri Lanka is also directed against the Sinhalese – a Sinhalese civil rights lawyer, Richard de Soysa was killed by security forces recently – going to the South for refuge is no answer. 

Nor is it an answer for people who have fought for democracy and human rights in their country to keep mum and give up their struggle when they come over here, which is what Mr. Baker wants them to do (under the rules of the new Asylum Bill) if they are to be considered suitable for asylum. But such a condition, apart from reducing a political refugee to the status of an economic refugee, is also a clear violation of human rights too. 

If these are some of the myths, stereotypes and misconceptions thrown up by the new pan-European racism, there is also a new institutionalised racism being fomented by the Trevi Group of Ministers and Police Chiefs, on the one hand, and the inter-state treaty makers of Schengen, on the other. For, although Trevi is meant to be addressing the problem of terrorists and drug runners, and Schengen the problem of illegal immigrants and refugees, a common culture of Euro- racism, which defines all Third World peoples as immigrants, and all immigrants and refugees as terrorists and drug-runners, will not be able to tell citizen from an immigrant or an immigrant from a refugee, let lone one black from another.  

As the experiences of Dr. Petronella Breinberg and Dr. David Dabydeen have testified in recent articles in the Caribbean Times and the New Statesman. The fact that they were senior lecturers n British universities attending academic conferences (different conferences, different dates) in Germany – holding British passports – did not stop them from being interrogated and searched and humiliated by immigration officers and police. And the fact that they were middle-class did not help one bit. We all carry our passports on our faces.