Imagine if a prominent Member of Parliament openly declared Pakistanis a ‘cancer in our body’. Shortly afterwards, she apologises for this remark – to cancer victims. Not only does the MP keep her job, she escapes any official rebuke at all. At around the same time, Molotov cocktails are thrown through the window of a nursery school attended by the children of asylum seekers in a poor part of London. A month later, there’s a violent riot against asylum seekers on a bloody night of looting, assaults and broken glass. Taxis and buses are stopped and searched for ethnic minorities; one of the rioters wears a T-shirt saying ‘Death to Pakistanis’; women voicing support for asylum seekers are told they should be raped; agitators make monkey noises at a group of black asylum seekers; and throughout, during the beatings and window-smashing and racist chanting, the police stand aside, looking on.
After the riot, death threats are sent to an organisation that helps asylum seekers. A young Iranian man who was knifed during the riot, and spent 11 days in hospital, says that the police are doing nothing to find his attacker. The home secretary announces that the raft of legislation she is pushing through Parliament is intended to make life so difficult for asylum seekers – or ‘trespassers’, as the government and much of the media prefer to call them – that they will leave. Local authorities in London raid shops and restaurants and in one kitchen pour bleach into pots of cooking food. The government ignores a high court ruling to release the asylum seekers it has already imprisoned. Instead, the police and the UK Border Authority collaborate to herd people off the streets into vans and buses which take them to a newly built prison camp in the middle of nowhere. The government also begins court proceedings against those it wishes to detain; in one instance, it submits papers to the court requesting the trial of more than 150 asylum seekers, identifying them by a series of numbers, with not one of the defendants referred to by name.
Or maybe it isn’t so hard to imagine those things happening in Britain. They have all already happened in Israel (where the majority asylum seeker populations are Eritrean and Sudanese rather than Pakistani and Iranian, as in the UK). Miri Regev, a Member of the Knesset, in May 2012 called Sudanese asylum seekers ‘a cancer in our body’. During a night of rioting in south Tel Aviv, Africans were physically assaulted, buses searched and windows smashed. In August 2012, the then interior minister, Eli Yishai, said he wanted to make the lives of Africans in Israel ‘bitter until they leave’. In December 2013 the government submitted a court summons listing asylum seekers by identification numbers rather than by name. And this is only a tiny fraction of the violence and intimidation that asylum seekers and their supporters have been subjected to over the last few years. In a rare victory for human rights, in September 2013 the High Court overturned an amendment to the anti-infiltration law that made it possible to detain asylum seekers for three years or more, declaring it unconstitutional. In response, however, the government passed new legislation allowing for asylum seekers’ indefinite detention in Holot, an ‘open lodging facility’ in the middle of the Negev desert. Detainees are required to report for roll-call three times a day, and are not permitted to leave between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. – not that there’s anywhere nearby for them to go.
The strikes and protests of the last few weeks are not spontaneous or without cause. Nor, as rightwing commentators have suggested, are they masterminded by a cabal of leftwing NGOs determined to bring about the end of Israel as a Jewish state. The government has ensured, through its assiduous persecution of those who have arrived in Israel seeking help, that civil disobedience is the only route left to asylum seekers now.