There have been two big shifts in British public debate in recent months. The first is the growing discontent with the politics of austerity, most evident in the startling rise of Jeremy Corbyn. The second is the popular groundswell of support for refugees. Who would have anticipated a few months ago demonstrations proclaiming “Refugees are welcome here”?
It is imperative that we connect the two: anti-austerity politics must embrace migrants’ rights, and support for refugees must be extended to those marginalised by the cuts to welfare. If we do not make these connections both movements will be fatally weakened.
It is commonplace for politicians of all parties to recite standard references to the Huguenots and Jews and Britain’s ‘proud history of welcoming refugees’ as a prelude to introducing ever harsher immigration and asylum laws. Confronted with the deaths, violence and misery at the borders of Europe, and at the port of Calais, such claims are ringing increasingly hollow.
The government has clearly recognised the strength of public sentiment. David Cameron has promised to accept more refugees from UNHCR camps in Syria. Many local authorities are willing to support this initiative, but they are calling for more money to fund the housing, school places and other local services that this will require. For local authorities are, as we know, extremely hard pressed. We have seen drastic cuts across the board in care provision, libraries and leisure facilities, infrastructure maintenance, community centres and other services. We have also seen dramatic rises in poverty for people living in the UK. Bedroom tax and benefit caps have hit the most vulnerable British residents, the necessary price, we are told, to balance the books.
George Osborne has proposed to redirect money from the foreign aid budget to cover the costs for one year. But how will this be received by the hundreds of thousands of people who have had their benefits stopped or capped, who are sofa surfing, scraping by on the minimum wage, or dependent on working tax credits that are soon to disappear. Or the people on housing lists or going to food banks who see that Syrians are accommodated but not them? If we are to avoid a competition between marginalised and impoverished groups we need to make the argument that better services for Syrian arrivals must mean better services for everybody. If we do not make this connection and its attendant political demands, the Right will.
This is the challenge, but it is also an opportunity to confront the basic fear – there is not enough to go around – that lies behind the acceptance of austerity and the fear of immigration. To make the argument that the problem for British low waged and unemployed people is not migrants (the global poor) but the massive extraction of profit and wealth that means that, as one Oxfam report found, in the UK there are 5 families who have more wealth than 12.8 million British residents. For supporters of refugees this takes us off the terrain of humanitarian responses and demands we argue for common interests rather than special cases. And there is an important starting point.
For in the wave of sympathy for Syrian refugees, what has been forgotten is the deliberate production of a ‘hostile environment’ for asylum seekers and undocumented migrants inside the UK, that began with the Labour Government’s pursuit of ‘bogus asylum seekers’ and that has been allowed to gather pace with very little public criticism.
We need bold thinking and new paradigms, and connecting anti-austerity actions and support for migrants is a critical first step.