Protests Grow as War on Migrants Becomes Official UK Policy

A South Asia Solidarity Group Despatch

The far-right politics of the UK’s Conservative Party government took another leap towards full blown fascism in the last month with its new Illegal Migration Bill, which effectively outlaws seeking asylum in Britain, violating international conventions on refugees as well as the European Convention on Human Rights. This was accompanied by a virulent ‘Stop the Boats’ campaign to demonise people who, with all other legal routes to Britain for refugees now blocked, have been forced to try to make the perilous crossing of the Channel from France in fragile dinghies and small boats. With Rishi Sunak as PM, the Indian-heritage Suella Braverman as Home Secretary and several other politicians of colour as senior ministers, any remaining hesitation about openly racist scapegoating of migrants seems to have been cast aside. Braverman is clearly determined to outdo her RSS-supporting predecessor Priti Patel in making a spectacle of her cruelty towards migrants. She has refused to apologise to a Holocaust survivor who confronted her for describing migrants in the dehumanising language of ‘swarms’ and ‘invasions’. Famously she has said it is her ‘dream’ and ‘obsession’ to see a photo of a plane taking off for Rwanda on newspaper front pages, in reference to the notorious and currently stalled scheme to send people who have sought asylum in Britain to Rwanda. Most recently she travelled to Rwanda itself where she was pictured apparently laughing with joy on the rooftop of a planned hostel for those to be deported.

The government’s spurious claim that they are stopping the boats to foil exploitative people-traffickers who organise the dangerous journeys fools no-one – nor is it meant to. Under the new bill anyone entering the country ‘illegally’ - i.e. without a visa issued by the British government, and having passed through any other country, clearly unavoidable for the vast majority of refugees who have to escape persecution and war by any means possible in order to stay alive - will be banned from seeking asylum. Incredibly, even those who are confirmed to be victims of modern slavery and trafficking will not be protected. They will be automatically detained (likely in camps such as Manston, where 4,000 people including lone children as young as 14 were held in horrifically overcrowded and insanitary conditions, and which had to be closed after an outbreak of Diphtheria) and then deported.

The Labour Party meanwhile, as expected, has failed to provide any political or ethical opposition to the Bill, shamefully focussing instead on simply arguing that the new policy ‘wouldn’t work’ in stopping migrants. But while the dominant corporate media outlets played their usual role of amplifying the racism and xenophobia, an unexpected incident shifted the focus. On 7 March former football star Gary Lineker, the anchor of the BBC’s flagship Match of the Day broadcast, tweeted that the government’s policy on migrants crossing the Channel in small boats was ‘an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s’. 

The tweet caused a furore in Tory circles and the right-wing media and the next day it was announced that Lineker had been removed from Match of the Day until an agreement could be reached on his use of Twitter. This generated a wave of fellow sports presenters and commentators stepping down in solidarity, led by fellow footballers Ian Wright and Alan Shearer. It also led to widespread questioning of the oft-proclaimed political independence of the BBC, which is funded through the TV license which every household which owns a television has to pay. The BBC has always been largely the voice of the British establishment on domestic matters at least (foreign coverage is more variable, as in the case of the incisive ‘Modi Question’ documentary, from which Rishi Sunak was quick to distance his government). But recently the BBC’s closeness to the government has reached new heights with the appointment as BBC Chair of Conservative party donor Richard Sharp, weeks after he arranged an £800,000 personal loan for Boris Johnson. Many observers pointed out that while the BBC claimed that Lineker had violated requirements to remain ‘impartial’, right-wingers employed by the BBC faced no such sanctions, as in the case of notorious ‘Top Gear’ presenter Jeremy Clarkson’s comment in 2011 that striking public sector workers ‘should be shot in front of their families’.  With Match of the Day and many other BBC sports programmes unable to run and a groundswell of public support for Lineker, he was reinstated by the BBC on 13 March.

Whilst known as a relatively progressive figure within sport, Lineker is no socialist or anti-imperialist: a production company he heads has recently produced a podcast in which Tony Blair’s spin-doctor and right-hand man Alastair Campbell attempts to retrospectively justify and rehabilitate the Iraq War.  But while some saw the Lineker affair as diverting from the real issue of the attack on refugees’ rights, others felt it drew further attention to the government’s rabidly racist and anti-migrant policies and narratives, from which it is increasingly unwilling to tolerate any dissent (ironically giving more validity to Lineker’s comparison with early Nazism in Germany). The widespread support for Lineker also arguably highlighted the potential - and urgency - of building mass opposition to such narratives, at a time of growing anger at the government and a wave of strikes in Britain.

But meanwhile there is already resistance to the government and support for migrants being organised on many different levels. Recent violent rallies by far-right groups outside hostels housing asylum seekers, empowered by the government’s rhetoric, have been successfully opposed by much larger counter-demonstrations. Many organisations and individual activists are also involved in vital forms of grassroots work, from providing legal support to asylum seekers to supporting and amplifying their campaigns on issues such as extortionate healthcare fees, and surrounding and blocking vans picking people up from detention centres to be deported.

Crucially, migrants and migrant-led organisations are at the heart of many of these initiatives, and protests have also been staged alongside those by people currently in detention. However, the struggles facing migrants and refugees are increasingly widely recognised as an aspect of neoliberal capitalism, and solidarity is becoming widespread among the left and progressive forces. With no sign of meaningful Parliamentary opposition to the government onslaught on migrants’ rights, such solidarity activism offers the only ray of hope for change.

UK Policy