Out of the blue I was invited to give a lecture at a Sonnenburg Association conference in the St George’s Building of Portsmouth University. The association is non-political and promotes international understanding - it started in 1949 at Sonnenburg in the Harz Mountains.
The conference was titled “Human Rights and Democracy: Threats and Opportunities for the 2020s” and my subject, of course, was immigration. It was rather enjoyable to step slightly outside my usual fund-raising talks and very enjoyable to think about the opportunities for reform within the system.
Michael Woolley, Chairman
Guten tag meine damen und herren!
Ist freutmich heute hier zu sein,
Leider spreche ich kein deutsch
Good morning, my name is Michael Woolley and I’m the Chairman of a Portsmouth Charity called Friends Without Borders. Your conference is titled “Human Rights and Democracy: Threats and Opportunities for the 2020s” and I’m going to speak about that in regard to Immigration, particularly in the United Kingdom but also, to some extent in Europe.
First let me tell you a bit about the charity I chair and then I’d like to outline the recent history of both immigration and human rights. Finally I shall think about the threats and opportunities.
So starting with a bit of information about the charity: we support refugees and asylum seekers in Portsmouth. The British Government sends two hundred asylum-seekers here while their cases are being processed. What our charity does is to provide a drop-in for them in All Saints Church in the City Centre. Every Monday and Thursday morning we open the doors and offer a free café with tea and coffee and sandwiches - and free advice on a variety of matters for people new to the UK. The Red Cross came to join us some years ago and they now take a significant part, doing all the triage work for the first few weeks. The Red Cross has paid workers but Friends Without Borders is an all-volunteer organisation which gives over 80% of the donations it receives to needy asylum seekers.
To explain who we give it to I need to explain a bit about the British asylum system. No asylum seeker is allowed to work but the Government supports people until they have made their appeal, giving them a bedsit and £37.75 a week. If they lose their appeal they get a letter telling them to leave the UK, their £37.75 is stopped, they are not allowed to work, or to drive or to rent. No asylum seeker is allowed to work. The “Hostile Environment” is very hostile indeed – BUT some of them cannot leave the UK because they either have no papers or their own countries won’t take them. The Government will support people like this but only if they sign an agreement to return when it becomes possible, only if they move to another town and only if they get their support in kind only. If they want to make a fresh asylum claim, as many do, they are on their own. We give cash to people in this situation, £20 a week, plus some extra now and then for special needs. We have just over twenty such people on our books costing us over £500 a week. The Red Cross does not have funds to support these long-term clients so it is all down to us. Other asylum seekers sometimes need help too so altogether we usually give around £800 or £900 a week, quite a challenge for a small local and locally financed charity to find. We get no help at all from the Government and don’t really want it either, valuing our independence. We want to be able to challenge the Government when we think they’ve got things wrong and don’t want to be compromised in the eyes of our clients by taking Government money.
The wonderful thing about the dropin is how many people come along with a good idea and provide added value. We have a barber, some child minders, six English classes, a group which visits a community allotment – and a football team. The MP, Stephen Morgan, operates a surgery once a month, a lecturer from Portsmouth University gives legal advice.
NOW I want to tell you a little about the history of immigration in the United Kingdom. It has long been an important part of our story but until the wonderfully named Aliens Act of 1905 it was almost completely uncontrolled. (Because of Walt Disney “Alien” has become associated in the public mind with space fantasy and terror but the word existed long before Hollywood, and used simply to mean “foreigner”). As I say in the 19th century immigration was uncontrolled - Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital in the British Library without having applied for Leave to Remain in the United Kingdom. Friedrich Engels worked in Manchester without having to ask for a work permit, though he was born in Germany and spent the first 22 years of his life there.
But in 1905 some controls were introduced with the Aliens’ Act.
While the Act was ostensibly designed to prevent paupers or criminals from entering the country and set up a mechanism to deport those who slipped through, one of its main objectives was to control Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe.
In the 19th century, the Russian Empire was home to about five million Jews, at the time described as the "largest Jewish community in the world". Subjected to religious persecution, they were obliged to live in the Pale of Settlement, on the Polish-Russian borders, in conditions of great poverty. About half left, mostly for the United States, but many – about 150,000 – arrived in the United Kingdom mostly in England. This reached its peak in the late 1890s, with "tens of thousands of Jews ... mostly poor, semi-skilled and unskilled" settling in the East End of London.
By 1900 a popular and media backlash had begun. The British Brothers League was formed, with the support of prominent politicians, organising marches and petitions. At rallies, its speakers said that Britain should not become "the dumping ground for the scum of Europe". In 1905, an editorial in the Manchester Evening Chronicle wrote "that the dirty, destitute, diseased, verminous and criminal foreigner who dumps himself on our soil and [and our taxpayers], should be forbidden to land". Anti-Semitism broke out into violence: … there are reports of Jews being assaulted.
It’s worth asking ourselves about the real and stated reasons for anti-immigrant feeling. “Scum” “dirty, destitute, diseased, verminous and criminal foreigner” are the stated reasons for dislike and may sometimes have some basis in reality. However the real reasons may also be to do with the competition which well trained and willing foreigners offer – they are competing for jobs and resources, housing for example, with natives who have not had notably successful lives.
We recently had a local example with the enlargement of the European Union into Eastern Europe. In 2004 Britain had a labour shortage so decided to allow all the East Europeans the immediate right to work in this country when their countries joined the European Union. It was thought that 13,000 might come but in the event more than 300,000 came in the first year. A number came to work on the farms of Selsey Bill to the East of here where a lot of strawberries and salad crops are grown.
The farmers were absolutely delighted – the previous shortage of labour had meant that the workers could strike hard bargains, not always financial but sometimes over matters such as hours. Suddenly there was an intelligent and willing workforce only too happy to work overtime and be flexible in emergencies. Crop-picking is hard and unpopular work and the British people who had done it previous to the Poles were not the sharpest or most successful of our workforce. However at the time English wages were four times what could be earned in Poland and so some of the most intelligent and well-trained people in that country came to pull lettuces – for a time we had an astrophysicist doing menial farm work.
In the Selsey case the immigrants were not Jewish but East European. What is sometimes described as anti-Semitism and sometimes described as “racism” might be better defined as anti-immigrant. The “dirty, destitute, diseased and criminal foreigners” referred to earlier happened to be Jewish but the animus was actually against immigrants and, more importantly, against competition.
Jews of course were a pre-occupation of Hitler and the Nazis and I would suggest for the same sorts of reasons as in Britain. We forget these days the great sense of SHOCK AND SHAME that swept the world, but particularly the West, with the discovery of the death camps, Auschwitz and the like. Seventy five years on it’s still terrible but no longer shocking in the way it was in 1945. When Richard Dimbleby, a famous reporter, broadcast from Belsen in April 1945 the BBC initially refused to play the report as they could not believe the scenes he described, even though Britain and Germany were still at war. They only broadcast Dimbleby’s Belsen report when he threatened to resign.
Joachim Liebschner, a resident of Midhurst for fifty years after the war, was a German Prisoner of war in the United States during it. He had been a committed Nazi and a fuhrer of the Hitler Youth before entering the armed forces - though he became a pacifist while in the army because of what he saw. He describes the conditions within the POW camp in the United States as quite relaxed – good even – until the German concentration camps were discovered:
“Many wore their shabby but clean and ironed uniforms complete with iron crosses and decorations. Some greeted each other with Heil Hitler and the outstretched arm salute…. The convinced Nazis were running the show. It seemed to have, if not the support of the Americans, then certainly their unquestioning acceptance.”
But the shock of the discovery of the concentration camps led to an abrupt change:
“From now on we’re going to show you what a concentration camp is like” announced the camp commander. Rations were cut to two sacks of potatoes a day for three hundred men – work hours were increased from eight to ten with quotas which if unfulfilled meant working until nightfall. Ribs began to show.
I spoke about the shock and shame which the discovery of the concentration camps provoked. The Shock was because it was genuinely shocking that the country of Goethe and Beethoven, of Schiller, Luther and Bach, should have sunk to such depths. For many people it seemed unbelievable at the time – and it certainly was for Liebschner, the prisoner of war, who shown films of the camps, dismissed them at first and for some years as Hollywood fabrication and propaganda.
The Shame was because the British had held many of the same anti-semitic opinions. For example in 1938 the Daily Mail had published a report headed “German Jews pouring into this country”. It read:
‘"The way stateless Jews and Germans are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming an outrage. I intend to enforce the law to the fullest" said the Old Street Magistrate yesterday referring to the number of aliens entering this country through the 'back door' -- a problem to which The Daily Mail has repeatedly pointed’.
The British remember with some pride the Kindertransport and the fact that this country took in 10,000 Jewish children in 1939. But it is often forgotten that at the Evian Conference in 1938 nothing had been done to relieve the Jews and that the British Colonial Office in fact rejected a plan to take Jewish Children to Palestine. Elsewhere other countries – in particular the United States - maintained strict quotas on Jewish immigration throughout 1939.
So SHOCK AND SHAME were key influencers on the politics of the late forties when much of the post war settlement was forged. And the post war settlement was liberal and progressive as can be seen from a number of measures at the time.
Take 1948 for example. In July The British Nationality Act became law effectively granting British Citizenship to anyone born in Britain, Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Ceylon or any of the, at that time considerable, number of British colonies. This was a policy which came to haunt our last Prime Minister, Mrs May, when a number of West Indians who had entered this country quite legally as British citizens 60 or 70 years ago, gone to school here, spent their working lives here, paid taxes here, found they didn’t have birth certificates and were treated as illegal immigrants, some even being deported as being illegally in the UK. This is what was known in Britain as the “Windrush” scandal after the one of the first ships bringing West Indian Immigrants to Britain. A lot of people think the Windrush scandal only affected West Indians but we (Friends Without Borders) have seen clients from other countries, notably Nigeria, suffering the same problems.
The British Nationality Act was passed in 1948 and sat on the statute book for 14 years. Another event in 1948 (December) was the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights also the product of the shock and shame felt at the end of the Second World War. Eleanor Roosevelt chaired a committee which drafted the Declaration – essentially about personal rights and freedoms - over a period of two years from its inception in 1946. It was a remarkable achievement in a world split at the time into two blocks but the declaration was passed without dissent.
In 1951 there were two other key events in the Post War Settlement. The Coal and Steel Community was founded in April ‘51. This was the very beginning of the European Union and all the international cooperation that involves. The Heads of Government of Six European States, state explicitly in the preamble that it is a peace project – the very first words are “CONSIDERING that world peace can be safeguarded only by creative efforts”. Five years of a devastating world war had concentrated minds.
The second event, in July 1951, was the Geneva Convention on Refugees which established the grounds for claiming asylum and which can be seen as a direct result of the shame felt by politicians at the way refugees from Germany had been treated in the 1930s. The Motor Vessel St Louis for example sailed from Hamburg in 1939 with over 900 German Jews but they were refused landing rights, first in Cuba, (for which they had visas) then in the United States and then in Canada. The refugees were finally accepted by Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands and many lost their lives when those countries later came under Nazi control. It was a particularly shameful episode and undoubtedly influenced the politicians writing the refugee convention.
The Refugee Convention states that asylum should be given to people with “a well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of RACE, RELIGION OR NATIONALITY, MEMBERSHIP OF A PARTICULAR SOCIAL GROUP OR POLITICAL OPINION. It is interesting that you can get asylum because you hold a particular political opinion, or are of a particular race, but not because you are starving.
This curious state of affairs leads to our having a number of clients who are tempted to create stories of persecution as they think this is the way to win refugee status. The sad thing is that the stories they tell are often of persecution by, for example, a local Chief of Police. They may be perfectly genuine stories and added to poverty and lack of opportunity may add up to a good reason to leave home. They do not however add up to a good reason to be granted refugee status as the British Home Office would understandably argue that they should have looked to make a new life in another part of their own country. The truth is that people often make the decision to emigrate for mixed reasons. The neat categories of the Geneva Convention do not cover all cases.
Well I hope I’ve said enough to weave together Human Rights, Democracy and Refugees. In the next part I will bring this little history up to date and say something about the threats and opportunities for the 2020s
Break for coffee? And for the interpreter
Britain was short of labour in the 1950s and the obvious solution was to use the British Nationality Act to bring people in from the Commonwealth. London Transport set up a recruiting office in the West Indies. Lancashire mill owners brought over hundreds of people from Pakistan. And resentment began to grow among the British workers.
In 1965 the first Race Relations Act was passed, making it illegal to discriminate by skin colour. A second Act followed three years later but while it was being debated there was a now infamous speech from a British politician, Enoch Powell, known as the Rivers of Blood speech. He spoke pessimistically about race relations, giving some emotive examples of how white people were being made to suffer and ended with a classical reference “As I look ahead I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman I seem to see the Tiber ‘foaming with much blood’”. He received widespread support from the populace but many politicians were outraged and he was sacked from the shadow cabinet and threatened with prosecution for inciting racial hatred.
Three years later in 1971 there was the third Immigration Act in ten years, like the one before, and the one before that, it further restricted immigration. It is as if the Government - or Governments for there were two led by different Prime Ministers from different parties - it is as if the Governments were making a pact with the people: with the three immigration Acts on the one hand they were promising to limit immigration while with the two race relations Acts on the other they were insisting that the immigrants already here should be treated equally.
Another very significant event of the 1970s was Britain’s accession to the European Communities which took place on 1st January 1973. We are all now aware that one of the four key freedoms of the European Union is the freedom of movement but at that time I do not think many people in Britain were aware at all. As late as the 1990s, when I first got involved in immigration, and when Conservative ministers were still talking about “control”, I was regularly having to explain that the EU guaranteed freedom of movement – in effect an open door policy.
As I said earlier this became an issue with the accession of the east European countries in 2004 and the decision of the British Government to allow immediate access to the labour market. It was thought that 13,000 might come but in the event more than 300,000 came in the first year. People needing plumbers were delighted, Polish plumbers rapidly gained an excellent reputation for skill and service but particularly older voters became alarmed. There were too many foreign speakers on the streets, traditional market towns in places like Lincolnshire had become unrecognisable. It was this alarm which was capitalised upon at the time of the 2016 Referendum and which to some extent explains the result. A hundred years after immigration from eastern Europe first sparked the Aliens’ Registration Act, another invasion, also from eastern Europe, was one of the causes of Britain voting to leave the EU in 2016.
Now we move on to the interesting bit: what are the threats and the opportunities for the next ten years when it comes to immigration and immigration policy? That of course has to depend on what happens in the next ten weeks – will the United Kingdom leave the European Union on 31st October or not? Will there be a deal? Will we leave with no deal? Will article 50 and Brexit be revoked? Hang onto your hats. I, for one, predict (and pray too) that we will end up staying members of the EU after another referendum. But nobody knows.
Whether or not we stay in the EU somethings need to change in the management of the European asylum system. The fundamental problem at present is that under the Dublin treaties asylum seekers are supposed to apply to the first safe country they reach to prevent “asylum shopping”. Asylum shopping is when an asylum seeker who is turned down by one European country, France say, goes on to make a claim in another, Britain for example. One of the prime aims of the first Dublin Convention was to end this practice and this has now been achieved by having an all-Europe fingerprint database and a rule that an asylum seeker’s claim should be determined in the first country where he or she first made it. When someone claims asylum now their fingerprints are taken and checked against the European database. If they have claimed elsewhere they are returned to that first country (often, because of geography, Italy or Greece) and the first country has to deal with the problem.
However at the exactly the same time as the Dublin treaties were being arranged – effectively from 1990 to 2013 – the Schengen Area was being established – effectively from 1985 to 2011. So while asylum seekers were supposed to stay in their country of arrival all frontiers were being removed making it possible for them to travel more or less at will.
There are two problems: firstly that undue stress is being placed on border nations like Greece or Italy and secondly how to stop asylum seekers from getting straight on a bus to some country they think more desirable. An opportunity for the 2020s is for asylum applications to become the responsibility of Brussels and for asylum seekers to be dispersed around the Union in much the same way as they are currently dispersed in the UK. The situation is being made the more complicated by Hungary’s de facto withdrawal from the Dublin agreement in 2015. The Commission is in fact already preparing a Dublin Four convention which addresses some of these concerns.
Of course the most sensible long term solution of the refugee problem is to sort out the problems which generate refugees. In Europe most are driven by the chaos of the Middle East and the poverty and sickness of Africa. There are - or will be - or perhaps we should generate – opportunities to stabilise the Middle East and enrich Africa. These opportunities are so diverse and so imponderable that we can’t go into them now but we should be alert to the fact that washing our hands of third world problems is not in our own best interests. AIDS and Ebola know no frontiers. Neither did the Syrian refugees who walked into Europe. One of the threats of the 2020s is another catastrophic war like that in Syria – if civil war starts in Turkey, for example, it could pose much the same problems as Syria and the Union may yet live to regret the tardiness with which it treated Turkey’s application to join.
Threats are not just external there are also internal threats within Europe which bear upon immigration – the populist governments in some east European countries could react very unfavourably to any attempt to disperse refugees to them. Hungary already refuses to take more. The politics of Mr Orban, the Prime Minister are closely related to immigration and nationality. He is explicitly opposed to any compulsory long term quota on the distribution of migrants as are most of the Viségrad group of east European countries.
However immigration also represents a great economic opportunity for host countries. I’m sure Mrs Merkel was being honourable and altruistic when she took in the Syrian refugees in 2015 but it cannot be denied that in purely economic terms it was also a very good move for Germany. The German population is getting old, the birth rate is half what it was in 1963. Who is going to pay the pensions of elderly Germans in the years to come? An influx of healthy well-educated largely young people at the start of the productive part of their life cycle is a blessing for any country. Germany has fortified its labour - and tax-paying - force without having to pay the costs of child-care and education. You will doubtless be pleased to know that the pensions of the Germans born in 1963 are safe – Mrs Merkel saw the opportunity and very wisely she seized it.
So the threats of the 2020s are reactionary politics, particularly in some front line countries and the opportunity is to reform the European immigration system and capitalise on the labour it brings. A further opportunity is to encourage the stabilisation of the Middle East and the development of Africa and we must keep those aims in mind, particularly with the current climate crisis.
There are opportunities to reform the asylum system within Britain as well. Did you know that this is now the only country in Europe with INDEFINITE immigration detention. There has recently been a move in Parliament to limit detention to 28 days but sadly it failed this time. In Britain detention is only legal if it is to remove an individual from the country and people like me would argue that that should NOT take indefinite time. Automatic release would concentrate the minds of the civil servants buying tickets and arranging flights. I remember one case with which I was involved when a man from Ghana was arrested for removal, he did not contest this and it should have been straightforward but when I met him he had already spent four months in detention. I don’t remember all the details of a case long ago but after our charity’s intervention a date was set for removal within the month – and missed. After complaint another date was set – and missed. After a third date was missed we went “nuclear” and, with his permission, went to the press. It made the front page headline of the Daily Express, a national newspaper. He left within days and as The Express paid for the story he had a bit of capital on his arrival. He had been in prison for months but nothing had been done to get him removed and released earlier because in Britain detention is indefinite. As I say automatic release would concentrate the minds of the civil servants. There is real opportunity for reform.
Another area crying out for change is the rule which prohibits work for asylum seekers. We have a tax and social security system which relies on all workers having a National Insurance number. It should not be impossible to give people permission to work for a limited time and programme the National Insurance computers to put up a red flag to any employer using a time-expired number to pay that worker’s tax. It would be good for the self-respect and mental health of asylum seekers and good for the country to get, at least some, of them into the labour market.
What will happen if the UK leaves the EU? I really don’t know but have to say that geography and history imply that there will have to be a working relationship. In the short term there may be more immigration into the UK from the Commonwealth and less from the European Union but I’m afraid nobody really knows. In the longer term I expect we’ll be back in the European Union.
However whether Britain is in the EU or not in future, whatever the outcome of the current Brexit negotiations, there will be people wanting to immigrate, posing threats and offering opportunities for the host nations.
Michael Woolley 20-08-2019