Home from home

It's agreed: we must do something about refugees. Well, it's better than doing nothing.

Jeremy Hardy

Saturday June 17, 2000

There are, in Britain, Kosovan Albanians who want to stay. This is hardly surprising because, although most are in grim hovels from which slum-lords make a killing, at least they can walk outside without stepping on a Nato cluster-bomblet or breathing uranium dust. Moreover, many Kosovans no longer have homes or relatives to return to. Some do wish to return. Some would just like to return to London, where they had started to make a home before being dispersed throughout the United Kingdom.

The same government that spoke so tearfully about their plight while bombing Yugoslavia now wants to round them up again and kick them out. Some people who supported the bombing are appalled by this. There were those who supported the war for genuinely humanitarian reasons. They didn't give much thought to what the government might be up to. If we don't take account of motives, we won't understand what is happening or what will follow.

Those who imagined that Nato was trying to help the Kosovans must either have been shocked when they learned it was showering the area with anti-personnel mines, or have imagined that they are designed to deal with the problem of ugly footwear. Depleted uranium must have been a clerical error or an attempt to have the place twinned with Iraq.

It would follow that the government is forcing Kosovan refugees to return for their own good. Refugees from other parts of the world must either be being expelled for the same good motive or for motives which, although bad, contrast with the benign rationale behind the expulsion of Kosovans.

Of course, some Kosovans arrived before the war started, partly because of violence and partly because the Yugoslav authorities had driven ethnic Albanians out of their jobs. This confuses the issue because, in Home Office logic, employment discrimination is not persecution, and the motive for fleeing it is financial. The same logic is applied to the Roma. The fact that a person is forced to live in poverty means that their flight is based on acquisitiveness and that they imagined any violence because they were faint with hunger.

Furthermore, even if people can prove that they have been persecuted, they must also prove that the state connived in that persecution at high level. One would think all these clever immigration lawyers and traffickers would encourage victims of violence to ask for a receipt. Unlike a government, a refugee has to prove a motive. A Polish Gypsy who has been attacked by neo-Nazis while police turned a blind eye, must establish a motive for telling her story to a British immigration officer. It might be that she has a well-founded fear of persecution, or it might be that she was bored with telling the story to relatives who'd all had the same experience.

If one believes that the British government is doing its best to help "genuine" refugees, a number of things follow. Dispersal to Belfast, for example, must be an effort to find a familiar habitat, a war zone riven by ethnic hatred being ideal. Moreover, since Ann Widdecombe is in almost total agreement with Jack Straw, either her motives are equally honourable or she has arrived at the same humane conclusions by accident. We would have to examine her views in context. Perhaps she finds herself in agreement with Jack Straw by pure chance.

Whereas she agrees with making asylum seekers apply from their home countries because it will reduce numbers and pander to racism, he wants to enable them to plan their move and leave a note for the milkman. He doesn't want to make it harder for refugees to come, or to criminalise those who arrive without the right papers. He wouldn't want people who are already in danger to get arrested after telling their stories to their local British embassy, or simply to be rejected because we get on with their government. He just wants to spare them a pointless journey to Britain and possible travel sickness.

For, surely, "something must be done" about the asylum system. As with the oppression of ethnic Albanians in Yugoslavia, it doesn't matter what is done or what the consequences are, so long as it is something. It would have helped if Labour and the Tories had not whipped up racist hysteria against refugees, just as it would have helped if the west had not crippled the Yugoslav economy, but it's too late now. Some people are whipped-up and something must be done. In the case of Kosovo, the something was to make things worse, which made British liberals feel temporarily better. But that cannot have been the motive for the something, because British liberals rightly feel terrible about the way the government is treating refugees. So what motivates British liberals? The failure to see a pattern.

Original article