The acceptable face of racism

Asylum-seekers are the people who will raise our taxes, hijack our homes and steal our jobs
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A FEW weeks ago they were people. People whose right to live in freedom and without fear of intimidation and violence was a right we had gone to war to uphold.

A couple of days ago they were refugees, flushed out of their own country by a vengeful dictator into chaotic camps, the objects of our pity, the recipients of our charity.

Today they are asylum-seekers, scroungers, liabilities, another burden on Britain's welfare state. Today they are the people who will raise our taxes, hijack our homes steal our jobs.

Their children, whose first language is not English, will attend our schools and hog the attention of teachers, who will then neglect the education of our own children. They will be a disruptive influence on our society more generally, too, for they do not know our ways.

They are already causing trouble, unhappy that some of their number are being accommodated in a hotel that is close to Leicester's 3,000-strong Serbian community. And this is the shape of things to come. These people will cling together and ghetto-ise themselves, making the long-term residents in the areas they colonise feel as if the country they have lived in all their lives is not their own any more.

They will tell us that they do not want to be here; that they have been driven out; that their homes have been burnt, their breadwinners killed and their possessions destroyed. That although they want to return to Kosovo, that is impossible for them, for in their own country they will live in fear, unable to escape the nightmares of the past which continue to torture them.

And while we will know this to be true, we will believe that there are other truths as well. That it is possible to be both a political exile and an economic migrant, and that the motivations of all asylum-seekers are larded with self-interest and opportunism. For while the victims of "ethnic cleansing" must be defended and refugees cared for, asylum- seekers are simply not to be trusted; asylum-seekers are a threat to our nation, a threat which, before the war came along, our Government was cracking down on.

Under the proposed Asylum and Immigration Bill, drawn up by the Home Office before the Kosovo conflict began, asylum-seekers will no longer be able to come to this country and sign on for social security and other benefits while their applications are being processed. Instead, they will be provided with hostel accommodation and food vouchers. To care for their children, they will receive an additional 50 pence each day.

Lucky them. At least 15 Kosovar refugees seeking asylum in Britain over the last month have been placed in detention centres. One refugee, 18- year-old Tinaj Luan, who was detained at Heathrow airport while on his way to Canada, was sentenced to three months in a young offenders' institution for using a false passport and obtaining services by deception.

And while there is no doubt in my mind that the British Government is sincere in its assertion that it has become involved in this conflict for humanitarian reasons, it is not true that there is no direct benefit for Britain in containing Milosevic.

Over the last 15 months, between seven and eight thousand Kosovar refugees have made their way to Britain under their own steam. These people were not offered asylum. Instead they were given temporary admission, hostel accommodation and food vouchers. It is a bitter irony that the decision to become involved in the defence of Kosovars has escalated this problem so spectacularly. For this humanitarian effort has highlighted the lack of humanity with which we treat the dispossessed.

And while one lesson we ought to learn from this is that in our future efforts to police the planet we must be ready to spend as much money and lavish as much thought on humanitarian efforts as we do on weaponry, there are other lessons to be learnt as well. For this is also an opportunity for us to examine our attitudes, and to think about the possibility that this Government-sanctioned resentment of asylum-seekers is nothing more than the latest nasty mutation of Britain's deep-rooted racism.

Further, we must ask whether our fear of "economic migrants" is simply the consequence of the colonialism-by-other-means that Western capitalist states such as ours call the "free market" or the "global economy". For while hatred of asylum-seekers is the new racism, adoration of the free market is the new colonialism. While it may seem that, in the wake of the Lawrence Inquiry, Britain has undergone an orgy of soul-searching over the question of racism in our society, this is untrue. Instead, we went through the motions. We were not honest enough to examine the issue with the courage that was necessary.

The single news story that exemplifies our dishonesty was the one that broke in the middle of the post-Lawrence chest-beating, trumpeting Field- Marshal Montgomery as a racist for his views of Africa after the Second World War, as if this were unusual for a man such as him in the time that he lived. Of course it wasn't. Just 25 years ago, Britain sat around on nigger-brown couches watching Love Thy Neighbour and dreading the prospect of the darkies moving in like bulldozers and razing the streets.

Even now, the most benign among us curse the "Pakis" for charging us more for a pint of milk at midnight than the supermarket multinational does. And we don't even accept that calling Asian small shopkeepers "Pakis" is racist. That's what they call themselves now, we say, conveniently forgetting that this is the kind of "assimilation" that may stave off a stabbing, or at least defuse the word's power as a wounding racial epithet when it's flung across the till.

Then, we feign perplexity that people can nail-bomb black or Asian communities, or set young black men on fire. We pretend to wonder where these kind of sick attitudes could possibly have been fostered when we know they have been fostered all about us. While we've reluctantly come to accept that there is such a thing as a black Briton, who can't be packed off home again, we still don't like it. Which is why our racism has found a new target, the asylum-seeker, who can be packed off home before his family become black Britons too.

All our navel-gazing about "institutionalised racism" generated nothing more useful than tummy-button lint. The proposed Asylum and Immigration Bill stands testament to the fact that institutionalised racism is alive and well and thriving in the heart of government. And it's a vote-catcher, as well. That's the real measure of how anti-racist this nation has become.

And while the fears that fuel this racism are indeed economic ones, that's only because the "free market" is a form of institutionalised and globalised racism, too. For the real reason why we don't want economic migrants over here is because we need them over there - wherever "there" is - where they can be fully exploited in the name of global economics.

The reason why Western economies such as our own can stay healthy while seemingly encumbered with enormous trade deficits is because the bigger the deficit, the smaller the domestic wage bill. While the US has received plaudits for its intervention at the time of the Asian market collapse, the real reason why the predicted financial meltdown hasn't happened is because we need to continue importing from Asia every bit as much as they need to keep exporting to us.

While this Government's introduction of a national minimum wage is one of its finest innovations, the fact remains that the wage can be set so low, and the cost of living here kept so low, only because of our complicity in exploiting workers abroad. And that's why they have to be kept abroad. Exploitation without responsibility - it's the colonialist's dream, which means it's the racist's dream. That's what "economic migrants" are fleeing from. And that's why anyone who claims that the free market is benign is racist through and through.