Once anti-immigration sentiment has turned nasty, it’s hard to look back and say with any certainty whether government cast the first stone. Enoch Powell and his party were in opposition at the time of his ‘rivers of blood’ speech in Birmingham in 1968: the problem, as the member for Wolverhampton South West saw it, was Wilson’s Race Relations Bill. Running for office, David Cameron talked tough on immigration. In coalition he could have smashed the soapbox, put it out for recycling and hoped for the best. But he’s had to deal with the self-destruction of the Tory Party and the good fortunes of Ukip, which is up its backside like a jalapeño suppository. Pained and jumpy, the government has been playing the immigration card as though it were in opposition, using the public purse to work up feeling on all sides of the debate.
Three years ago in Arizona, Russell Pearce, the leader of the state senate, hit the ‘illegal’ button, and a strange thing happened: authorised migrants and citizens of non-US extraction – often the first to call for stricter immigration targets – changed their position and started muttering about racism. Meanwhile, as the round-ups began, thousands of unauthorised workers left for neighbouring states and the local economy went from steep decline to death row.
The nearest thing just now to the send-me-home trucks motoring around the UK is the Australian government’s poster warning asylum seekers who reach the country by boat that they needn’t have bothered risking their lives and money.
Elections are looming and the opposition, thundering in the wings, has driven the ruling Australian Labor Party to dramatic action restricting the right of asylum. Kevin Rudd is planning to appoint a senior military figure to keep out asylum seekers. Unauthorised arrivals by boat have always been a prickly issue in Australia.
No one’s suggesting we abandon the category ‘illegal’. But the movement of human beings is harder to manage than it is to legislate. The best answer for a country with large numbers of unauthorised migrants – the US has at least 11 million – is to redefine them as residents, with documents, rights and responsibilities. This was the substance of Reagan’s immigration reform in 1986 and it’s the centrepiece of Obama’s current package. An amnesty for undocumented migrants every quarter of a century is a better solution than the gutter politics we’re seeing in the UK.
The word ‘illegal’ has a resonance for signatories to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (and the 1967 Protocol). Signed-up states that start winding down their commitments are certainly acting against the spirit of international law and might be in breach of the letter. Articles 31 and 33 of the Convention are the ones in question here: their import is summed up well in a preface by the office of the High Commissioner for Refugees to the 60th anniversary edition:
The Convention… stipulates that, subject to specific exceptions, refugees should not be penalized for their illegal entry or stay. This recognizes that the seeking of asylum can require refugees to breach immigration rules. Prohibited penalties might include being charged with immigration or criminal offences relating to the seeking of asylum, or being arbitrarily detained purely on the basis of seeking asylum. Importantly, the Convention contains various safeguards against the expulsion of refugees. The principle of non-refoulement is so fundamental that no reservations or derogations may be made to it. It provides that no one shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee against his or her will, in any manner whatsoever, to a territory where he or she fears threats to life or freedom.
Australia is sailing close to the wind on right of asylum, as Britain is on all forms of immigration.