Who Killed 58 Chinese Immigrants?

British Debate Racism and Anti-Immigrant Hysteria

In April, on the same day that a Dutch lorry driver was found guilty of causing the deaths of 58 Chinese people who were attempting to travel to Britain, US journalist David Bacon interviewed Sabi Dalu and Jude Woodward of the U.K.National Assembly Against Racism

On April 6 this year, Perry Wacker, a Dutch truck driver, was found guilty in a British court for causing the deaths of 58 Chinese immigrants.  They perished after he closed the air vent on his truck trailer, as he loaded it onto a ferry crossing the English Channel on a hot summer day.  Wacker meant to keep any sound from alerting British customs agents who might suspect him of smuggling a human cargo.  His subterfuge was discovered nonetheless.  When the trailer was opened, all but two of the people crammed inside, with room enough only to stand, had died from heat, thirst and lack of oxygen.

It was not hard for the court to reach its decision.  Wacker was just a driver - the low man on the totem pole.  Ying Guo, residing in the town of South Woodford, Essex, was also convicted - she had lined up jobs for the border-crossers.  But who else was really responsible?  The gangs of smugglers - "snakeheads" - who charged thousands of dollars to those who sought jobs and a future with their families in Britain?  Political leaders who have closed European doors on immigration, while whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment to win elections and divert popular discontent over economic hardship?  Or those who benefit from the existing world economy, where privatisation and debt in developing countries make migration a preferable, and sometimes only, option for those seeking economic survival?

The 58 deaths provoked outrage throughout the UK.  They became a potent reminder of the extreme dangers and sacrifices suffered by those who seek asylum and legal residence.  But they also highlighted the poisonous political atmosphere, in which asylum-seekers are treated as people cheating the system, who deserve to kept out.  On the day the verdict was announced, David Bacon interviewed two campaigners in London for the National Assembly Against Racism - Jude Woodward and Sabi Dalu -  key organisers in the effort to defend the rights of asylum-seekers.  They described the connections between racism and anti-immigrant hysteria in Britain, and how they've been used for political purposes during the country's recent election campaigns.

Bacon: Britain immigration policy, like that of the rest of the European Union, seeks to exclude as many people as possible.  Was the immigrant rights’ movement here in London able to use the public outcry over the 58 deaths in the truck trailer to focus on this policy, and to what degree do you hold it responsible for the deaths?

Woodward: This incident was an absolutely horrendous tragedy.  And I think it was completely shocking for everybody in this country, including even people who had been very hostile to asylum seekers and new migrants.  The deaths of these 58 Chinese people took place at the end of a 9-month, sustained hostile press  and media campaign against new migrants, asylum seekers. And although these terrible deaths didn't stop that completely, they did change the public mood.  People began to think that perhaps this hostility had gone too far - that the sense of persecution was actually driving people to their deaths.

This hysteria has been politician-led.  It's been quite cynical.  The fact is that European policy on immigration has really changed since the 1980s,  and now almost all legal ways of coming to Europe have been closed off in line with protocols agreed upon at a European level. In the UK, for example, it's been virtually impossible to come legally except on grounds of family reunion and marriage since the early 1990's.  And even that's very difficult.

People who might have come to the UK or Europe in past years on grounds other than asylum, are being shifted by the law into the asylum system. And as this has happened, politicians on the right built campaigns by saying that the asylum system was being misused,  Unfortunately, the centre-left in British politics, like the Labour Party and the Labour government, have tended to buy into this argument rather than stand up to it.  That's what’s fed the public mood.

Bacon: How did the immigrant community in Britain feel about it?

Dalu: There was tremendous concern amongst Black people.  There had been relentless attacks on asylum seekers and immigrants in the six months prior. The sort of attacks that we've witnessed on asylum seekers and immigrants are the biggest since the 1960s and ‘70's when you had waves of immigrants come in from the former colonies like India and Uganda.  And it's because this issue was put on the political agenda as part of the current election campaign.

The death of the 58 Chinese immigrants did humanise the debate.  The media and politicians did tone down their attacks on asylum seekers and immigration.  Ordinary people did realise that immigrants had to make huge sacrifices.  However, for example, on a TV programme called Question Time the asylum issue came up and people in the audience asked, "Can't these people just seek asylum in the first country that they arrive in?  Why do they have to come to Britain?" That argument needs to be countered, but the only people who responded were Black people in the audience.

Bacon: When you use the word Black, you refer to more than just people of African ancestry?

Dalu: Black is a political term, and refers to people of African, Caribbean and Asian origin. People unite politically around the term Black, because they are visibly different then the White majority.  These are the people who suffer the brunt of racism in this country.  Just this Sunday, for instance, Shibley Ramen, an Asian man, was murdered in a racist attack. His murder was similar to that of Steven Lawrence, an Afro-Caribbean teenager killed in 1993.  While people may come from different continents - Asia, Africa and the Caribbean - the treatment they receive in Britain is exactly the same.

Woodward: The term I've heard in the States is people of colour, talking about people subject to white supremacy. Black people are confronted with institutionalised racism in western, white-dominated countries.  And this racism doesn't exist just within those societies, but in the relationship between those countries and the rest of the world - the Black majority of the human race - people of African, Asian and Caribbean origin.  People who are visibly different from white Europeans have been subjected to the most grotesque genocide and discrimination.  The impact of racism, which is rooted in the idea of white supremacy, is a basic part of the way our societies function and operate, including attitudes toward new immigrants today.

Bacon: Are those attitudes changing at all?

Dalu: Politicians are looking for a way to divert attention from their own mismanagement of economic problems and resources.  They scapegoat asylum seekers.  For example, again on Question Time a woman living in South London said asylum seekers are being prioritised over her for housing. Both residents and immigrants need housing, and this competition stems from the government's failure to put resources into the housing sector.  To avoid responsibility for this, asylum seekers are  scapegoated.

Bacon: How do you think the European immigration system should be changed to make i it less racist, and to avoid this kind of jobs competition?

Woodward: The present system makes it very difficult for people when they get here.

If you've come here to claim asylum, you have to have these special vouchers, almost like being forced to wear a badge saying "asylum seeker." People aren't allowed to work, so they're put into designated accommodations around the country.  Many are held in detention centres, and can be held in detention indefinitely with out any right of Habeas Corpus. These abuses need to be ended.

Even more broadly, the circumstances which caused the deaths of those 58 Chinese people will only be changed when the whole framework for migration into Europe, and into the UK in particular, is changed.  At present it is virtually impossible to apply legally to come here.  If you're in China, you can't walk into the British embassy and say, "I’d like a visa to come to Britain to claim asylum."  No such visa exists.  You can get a visitor's visa if you're very lucky and if you've got a relative here and can prove it.  You can get a student visa if you can show that you have a college to come to, a means of supporting yourself, and a sponsor here who will support your application.  You can get a visa to marry somebody here, but that is extremely difficult and can take several years.  If you're coming for any other reason, including fleeing the most direct political persecution, the only way to get here is clandestinely - illegally.

A high proportion of the people who come in illegally then go and present themselves to the immigration authorities and say they want to claim asylum.  But you can't get in here to claim asylum directly.  So that's the fundamental change that has to take place.  There have to be legal means by which people can come to Europe and the UK, and then apply for the right to stay here indefinitely.  That's the only way to stop people coming on false papers, hidden in the back of lorries or even on the undercarriage of aircraft.

Bacon: Yet businesses in many parts of the European Union are complaining of labour shortages, and asking for programmes for bringing in immigrants as guest workers.

Dalu: Well, some people are being allowed to come in on work permits already, because employers claim a serious skill shortage in Britain.  And we certainly believe people should be allowed to come as economic migrants, looking for work.  But there aren't many concrete proposals yet.

The problem is the unequal distribution of wealth globally, which is clearly linked with the Third World debt to the west.  This causes many of the harsh conditions and lack of economic opportunity in those countries which send migrants. At the same time, though, the history of immigration legislation in Britain is quite racist.  The vast majority of migrants can't legally come into this country, which is why 58 Chinese people died in the back of a lorry.  Thirty or forty years ago, when Britain needed labour, people could come here legally.  So when we want Black people to come into our country to work, then it's okay.  But afterwards the attitude is -- oh sorry, we finished with you, we don't need you now.

Woodward: Even the use of the term illegal immigrants reflects that racism. Many people here are overstayers, who have come here on a short term visa and then stay after it expires.  The largest group like this are Australians, including many who've come on student visas.  But there's no great outrage about the large number of Australians flooding the UK because they're white.  The real agenda in this discussion is about race and racism - it's not about how many people this little country can hold.  It's about what kind and what colour of people they want to let in.

There's a mantra in establishment circles that says that good race relations depend on immigration policies.  The only way to guarantee good race relations, they say, is to keep more Black people from coming in, so that you have a sort of acceptable balance.  This argument turns reality upside down.  The most positive thing for race relations is to have more Black people here, because the more integrated society becomes, the less space there is for racism.  It's not primarily about economics - it's about race.  Studies have shown that even if you liberalise immigration laws dramatically, there would be an immediate rush of people coming here, but then it would fall off.  You would have much the same level of migration that exists now.  Immigration law doesn't really have a very big affect on migration levels, but on the status of people once they're here.

Bacon: What does the National Assembly Against Racism do to counteract this anti-immigrant atmosphere?

Dalu: The assembly consists of trade unions, grass roots Black and Jewish organisations, and a number of MPs.  Our biggest campaign is called Speak Out Against Racism - Defend Asylum Seekers.  The campaign's goal is to abolish the voucher scheme and the dispersal system contained in the 1999 Asylum Immigration Bill specifically, and to generally stop the racist scapegoating of asylum seekers.  We also try to make people who work in the media - journalists - legally responsible for the consequences of the hysteria they often create.

Some people in Britain advocate a policy of open borders, and in principle I agree.  But in terms of the reality of the present political atmosphere, that's not where we're at right now.  In order to progress you need to make the broadest possible alliances, and you can only do that by having a specific campaign around a specific issue, like that of the Bill.  So that is the first step.

Bacon: It seems that all European countries are involved in the same debate over the impact of immigration, and the rise in anti-immigrant hysteria.  What relationship do you have to these Europe-wide debates?

Woodward: Things have developed in Europe from different historical situations. Britain was a big imperial power, and, right up until the middle of this century had a huge number of colonies.  That empire disintegrated under the impact of movements for colonial freedom after the second world war.  But Britain had a particular relationship with those ex-colonies, and attracted, and had joint citizenship arrangements, with residents of those ex-colonial countries.  So until the immigration law in the UK began to tighten from the early 70's onward, there was quite a large flow of people into the UK.

That wasn't quite the same elsewhere in Europe.  Germany had a guest worker system up till the early 80s.  France had a temporary permit system, in which Algerian and North African workers came in on short term visas. Those visas, for 5 or 10 years, were renewable, but people weren't given permanent residence.  Eventually people wound up living in France for decades, had their visas renewed, their kids born there, but had no permanent residence rights.  That system never existed in the UK because people who were allowed in got permanent residence.

Since the 80's, the EU has tried to harmonise these different immigration policies.  As a result, all countries have tightened immigration policies till virtually no one is allowed in.  Now, in the very last few years, those policies are being questioned   Demographically and economically, Europe needs a renewal of its labour force, which can only come about through new migration.  Some countries, like Italy, have been behind other European countries in tightening up borders, and have been overtaken by this new discussion. I wouldn't hold Italy up as a great example because it's generally had a huge numbers of illegal workers.  On the one hand you could say Italy is great because it doesn't have much in the way of border control - it's relatively easy to get in.  On the other hand. Italy has never looked properly at regularising and integrating the people who do immigrate into the country.  And there's still a great deal of racism. Even the Pope says he's very worried about the number of Islamic people living in Italy.  You can't say one is better then the other.

Bacon: How do you look at the immigration debate going on in the U.S.?

Woodward: Obviously what happens here is primarily determined by discussions on a European level.  But we're very interested in what happens in the States because the UK governments see themselves, and indeed do have, this special relationship to the United States.  It's a somewhat subordinate relationship, rather than a relationship of equals, in which UK governments are particularly sensitive to policies developed in the Untied States. That includes immigration policy. For example, when the United States began to loosen up on migration and started its quota system, then we had the same sort of discussion here. The same is true about guest worker proposals.  Even though the UK's policies are determined  in a European framework, it's very sensitive to what's being done in the United States.

David Bacon writes regularly on issues of interest to the labour movement and progressive opinion. He can be reached at dbacon@igc.apc.org