I’m in Europe this summer, though not in exile. I have not been driven to find sanctuary, much less thrown into a cage awaiting deportation, or forcibly separated from my child. When I fly home to New York, I will not be told that my name has 'randomly' appeared on a list, and taken aside to answer questions about the country of my ancestors, or my religious and political convictions. But for the first time in my life I'm not certain that this privilege, which ought to be simply a right, will last. By a strange twist of historical fate, people like me, Jews whose families fled to the US from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, became insiders, 'white ethnics', but the racism, intolerance and sheer vindictiveness that Donald Trump has helped bring into the mainstream are volatile forces, in constant search of new targets. For Muslims, Latinos, immigrants and black people, this has been the Summer of Hatred. Now we can add journalists to the list. Trump, the inciter-in-chief, called them 'enemies of the American people'. Five were killed in Maryland last week; they are unlikely to be the last.
Nigel Farage claimed recently that ‘65 per cent of assessed “child refugees” coming to UK were actually adults’. According to Home Office figures, there were 2206 asylum applications from unaccompanied children last year. Immigration officers disputed the age of 712 of them; 634 disputes were resolved; 440 applicants were judged to be 18 or older, though that decision doesn’t necessarily mean that they ‘were actually adults’. In France last year, about 25,000 people applied for asylum as unaccompanied minors, up from around 4000 in 2010. I met Amadou – not his real name – at a Médecins Sans Frontières centre in Paris. He’d dreamed of making it to Paris to continue his education, learn French, become a bus driver. But the authorities didn’t believe he was 16 and wouldn’t offer him protection as a minor unless he could provide proof of his age.
‘I was born a Tory,’ Enoch Powell said in a speech towards the end of his life, defining 'Tory' as ‘a person who regards authority as immanent in institutions’. During the Second World War, Powell spent two years in the Middle East and North Africa Commands, stationed in Cairo as secretary to the Joint Intelligence Committee. Unsatisfied, he wrote to his parents of his ‘determination to go East’. His chance came when the British, fearing the influence of Indian nationalism in the British Indian Army, sent a British general from Cairo to Delhi, allowing Powell to follow. He served as an officer in Delhi from 1943 to 1946, and ‘fell hopelessly and helplessly in love with India’. On his return to England he immediately joined the Conservative Party and resolved to become viceroy of India, studying Urdu at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London to further his chances. The significance of these early experiences of war and empire is the focus of Camilla Schofield's recent study, Enoch Powell and the Making of Postcolonial Britain. He took the news of India’s independence on 15 August 1947 badly, walking the streets of London all night. ‘One’s world,’ he wrote, ‘had been altered.’
The Italian general election has resulted in a hung parliament. There is already talk of a Third Republic, as the 'mainstream' parties have been swept aside by a populist wave, though it's worth remembering that the Partito Democratico was only formed in 2007, out of the remnants of the remnants of the parties that dominated Italian politics during the First Republic (from 1946 until 1994); that the current incarnation of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia dates from as recently as 2013; and that the Second Republic (1994-2018) was dominated by Berlusconi and his meretricious brand of soi-disant anti-establishment but ultimately self-serving politics. It's hard to mourn the passing of that era; or would be, if it were possible to believe that it had really passed.
Pamela Mastropietro, an 18-year-old from Rome, left the rehab clinic where she’d been staying in the province of Macerata, in central Italy, on 29 January. Her dismembered corpse was discovered two days later, in two suitcases, in the countryside nearby. Innocent Oseghale, a 29-year-old Nigerian with an expired residency permit and a criminal record of drug dealing, was arrested almost immediately on suspicion of involvement in Mastropietro’s death.
From the little fishing village of Skala Sikamineas in northern Lesbos you have a good view of the Turkish coast less than 15 km away. Even when the wind gets up and riles the water, there are still refugees crossing in inflatable dinghies with outboard motors, mostly at night. There are descendants on this part of the island from an earlier refugee influx at the end of the Greco-Turkish war, when Turkish forces entered the city of Smyrna in 1922 and Greek and Armenian residents crammed the waterfront for days waiting for boats to get them to safety. In a report for the League of Nations on 18 November 1922, Fridtjof Nansen reckoned the number of refugees ‘already within the frontiers of Greece’ at ‘not less than 900,000’. The Northern Aegean islands and the mainland port of Piraeus were common destinations for those who were lucky enough to leave Turkey by sea. This history gives the inhabitants of Lesbos a perspective on the current refugee crisis that is now much harder to imagine in island communities such as the UK. Before the NGOs arrived in force in 2015, when thousands of refugees were arriving daily, rescuing people in danger was a matter for local people, especially fishermen, and the overstretched Hellenic Coast Guard.
Last Thursday morning I called my friend Mateusz to tell him a high court judge had ruled against the Home Office policy of detaining and ‘removing’ EU citizens who sleep rough. Not before time, he laughed. The previous day, he and his friends had scarpered after being approached by charity outreach workers in South London. Since May 2016, immigration enforcement teams have been raiding the sleeping sites of homeless Europeans across London.
Like Neal Ascherson, I recently revisited Gdańsk. The last time I was there was in August 1983, three years after the Gdańsk Agreement, the Communist Party’s abortive deal with the Solidarity trade union movement. Protests were expected. I was 19, and still had a few weeks left before university. It seemed sensible to lend a hand. I was detained several times by the ZOMO riot police, and once found myself marching beside Lech Wałęsa. But it was a lull in the action that came to mind most often last week. At one point in 1983, as protesters around me contemptuously tossed złoty coins towards ZOMO officers, a wall of shields advanced and we were all swept into a subway. Smiling nervously at a priest who ended up next to me, I heard him murmur something like a prayer. When I explained that I spoke only English, his eyes widened. ‘England?’ he repeated. Reaching for my wavy black hair, he pressed a curl between his fingers. ‘But you are … nigger?’
Last Thursday, three dozen immigrant students gathered for an emergency meeting at Hunter College, a public university on the east side of Manhattan. The mood was grim: two days earlier, in furtherance of his ‘America first’ agenda, President Trump had announced the termination of Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme. Daca had given some 800,000 undocumented Americans – including hundreds of Hunter College students – the right to work and temporary protection from deportation. But it was created, in 2012, by presidential fiat, not through legislation, and so fell short of granting permanent residency or citizenship. ‘It made no sense,’ as Obama explained in response to Trump’s repeal, ‘to expel talented, driven, patriotic young people from the only country they know.’
In August 2003, I flew from India to the United States to go to college. I landed in the dead of night at Syracuse Hancock International Airport where I was picked up by a taxi for the two-hour journey to Canton, New York. The driver interrogated me about India: ‘Does everyone speak Indian? Is everyone poor? Is the food all spicy? Why do you worship cows?’ I did my best to answer his questions, but he seemed bothered by my accent. Eventually he gave up trying to understand me and we rode in silence for the rest of the journey. I felt like a failure, embarrassed that I wasn’t comprehensible to those who had graciously allowed me into their country.
At 6.20 p.m. on 14 June, a migrant-advocacy group in Arizona tweeted: ‘URGENT: Border Patrol agents have surrounded and are actively surveilling the No More Deaths humanitarian aid camp.’ The camp was raided the next day by around thirty armed agents with fifteen trucks, two quad bikes and a helicopter.
I travelled to Egypt two weeks ago and arrived home at JFK on Saturday, 28 January, around noon. I am from Iran and have been a US citizen since 2015. Last summer, returning from Europe, the electronic passport machine let me straight through. This time however the machine didn't let me through and I had to stand in line to see a Customs and Border Protection officer. For the fifteen minutes I was waiting, I didn't see a single white person among us. The line of US citizens denied automatic entry were all, without exception, black and brown people who predominantly seemed Muslim. In front of me was a Muslim Indian man who had lived in the US for over ten years. Behind me was a Muslim Sudanese-American woman who was back from visiting her family in Sudan.
With an executive order signed on Friday, President Trump began implementing the ‘extreme vetting’ of Muslims he promised during his campaign. All refugees are now barred from entering the US for 120 days. Syrian refugees face an indefinite ban. For 90 days, all entry has been suspended for citizens of seven Muslim majority countries: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. Yesterday, it was confirmed that the ban on entry includes people with green cards who happened to be out of the US when the order was signed. They cannot return home.
The Casey Review into opportunity and integration was published last week. Among the platitudes (‘integration is a nebulous concept’) and non-sequiturs (it quotes opinion polls extensively without explaining why they are important or relevant, or considering if the questions were worth asking), Dame Louise Casey asks: 'Why conduct an integration review?' Because 'numerous reports on community cohesion and integration had been produced in the preceding fifteen years but the recommendations they had made were difficult to see in action.’
Media coverage of the recent violence in Cologne is perpetuating sexism and racism in the name of feminism. On 9 January, the German magazine Focus carried a photograph on its cover of a naked white woman with black handprints all over her body. Süddeutsche Zeitung used a drawing of a black hand reaching up between a white woman’s legs. (SZ’s editors have since apologised; Focus’s have not.) A Charlie Hebdo cartoon shows monkey-like men chasing a woman and asks: ‘Who would little Aylan have become if he’d grown up? A bottom-groper in Germany.’ The British media too have carried stories on the problem of ‘migrant gang sex attacks’ and ‘sexual jihad’, accepting the far right’s use of the spectre of sexual violence to advance its anti-immigrant agenda.
‘Terrorism and immigration are not the same,’ an Afghan migrant in his thirties tells me. Self-evident facts need to be reiterated in a state of emergency. He’s married to a French person – no names at this point – and expecting a French passport shortly. He’s worried, like all migrants of Muslim origin, about the next step in the confrontation with Isis: migrants were regarded with suspicion long before last week’s attacks in Paris. He’s with friends, new arrivals from Kabul and Jalalabad, queuing in the drizzle outside the offices of a refugee support NGO, Terre d’Asile, in the 18th arrondissement. They have folders of documents to help them make asylum claims, but they’re confused, and so am I: procedures have changed since I last lent a hand with a claim.
When you go to see someone at Harmondsworth Detention Centre near Heathrow, you sit in a waiting room until your ticket is called and you are led into the large visiting room. After a while, the person you are there to visit enters through a door on the other side. The waiting room and visiting room are decorated with photographs printed onto canvas. The photos are the stock kind you might get on the desktop of a Windows PC: deserts, beaches, lush forests, drops of water, lands of mineral richness. They appeared after Mitie took over running the centre from GEO (both are private companies). Artwork by detainees used to decorate the walls, but now those pictures are stacked up in the corner.
'If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing. The uncontroversial appearance of the principle just stated is deceptive... For the principle takes, firstly, no account of proximity or distance. It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbour's child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away. Secondly, the principle makes no distinction between cases in which I am the only person who could possibly do anything and cases in which I am just one among millions in the same position.' Peter Singer's (famous, and much disputed) contention in 'Famine, Affluence and Morality' (1972) may have acquired a new, literal force this week with the widespread dissemination of images of the drowned corpse of a three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach. The pictures don't alter Singer's argument one way or the other, but reduce the perceived distance between Western Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean.
An elderly couple have been murdered in their home in Palagonia, a town of 16,500 people near Catania. The police have arrested an 18-year-old suspect, who was caught with the victims' phone, computer and bloody trousers on his person. He says he found them under a tree. The crime was probably gruesome enough to have made headlines for its sensation value alone: both corpses were naked; the woman was thrown from a balcony. There were no signs of forced entry on the doors or windows of their apartment. But it's still in the news because the suspect, an Ivorian national, arrived in Sicily by boat on 8 June.
The Jardin des Olieux is a small park just off the Boulevard Victor Hugo in Lille. Twenty-five or so homeless migrants have been camping there for a couple of months. Several of them are teenagers. Mamadé from Guinea, who is 16, told me that every morning they walk to a day centre near the train station for a meal, coffee and a wash. But they have nowhere to sleep except the park, and the police have taken away their mattresses. The French state in theory guarantees appropriate accommodation and support for unaccompanied migrant children, but there is an effective ‘presumption of majority’, according to a local lawyer, as well as long delays in the process which leave many on the streets for weeks.
Djaved says he has learned that you can haggle with a policeman for anything in Sofia. At 10.15 on the morning we met it was already over 30ºC, but we went for a walk anyway. I grew up wandering these streets after school. Yuch Bunar, as the area near the Central Market Hall was once called, has traditionally been the home of migrants, Jews, traders, musicians. It is the most culturally and historically dense part of the city, and the buildings haven’t changed much since the late 19th century. They haven’t been intentionally preserved – just left undisturbed. The area has a synagogue, a mosque, one Catholic and two Orthodox churches, all working, all in one square mile, all peeling stucco in different shades of ochre, just minutes away from Parliament Square, where the buildings are in pale grey stone: the council of ministers, the presidential palace, the national bank.
Home Office Immigration Enforcement officers seize up to forty people a day. They carry out raids in communities with large ethnic minority populations, without warning, and snatch their unsuspecting targets, who are often uninformed about their rights, from their places of work or off the street. Immigration Enforcement (IE) replaced part of the UK Border Agency in 2013 to carry on the work of tackling so-called ‘immigration offences’. According to Home Office statistics, there were more than 4400 ‘enforcement visit arrests linked to information received’ last year, leading to over 1000 ‘subsequent removals’. In total there were over 12,000 enforced removals for breaches of UK immigration law in 2014. How many of them were the result of the 10,000 indiscriminate (i.e. not ‘linked to information received’) raids isn’t clear. Many of the people who aren’t deported end up in detention centres; others are released. Again, the precise figures aren't published.
The UK has introduced a healthcare surcharge for immigrants from non-EEA areas. Adults have to pay £200 a year for access to the NHS whether or not they make use of it; students have to pay £150. UK citizens who want to bring their partner to the country must apply for a 30-month residency visa: the NHS surcharge on this is £500, almost doubling the previous cost of the visa (£601). Skilled migrants can be stuck with bills of more than £1000. An applicant with a dependent spouse and three children could be charged £5000.
For sale at the Labour Party shop. Who needs Ukip?
Three years ago there weren’t many beggars on Stockholm’s streets. Some homeless, yes, selling Situation (the Swedish equivalent of the Big Issue), a few buskers in the Tunnelbana; but not men and women huddled in doorways, wrapped in blankets – it’s well below freezing here now – with stories of sick children, homelessness and hunger scrawled on squares of cardboard beside them, and paper coffee cups for passers-by to put coins into, or not. This is new. It’s a shock for someone who’s been coming to Sweden for years, always impressed by the absence of obvious signs of poverty, only too familiar in the UK and elsewhere in Western Europe, but relieved in Sweden by the generous welfare safety net. It seems so very osvensk.
From the reaction to the Home Office’s decision to grant visas to the family of Andrea Gada, a five-year-old killed by a car in Eastbourne before Christmas, you’d think a corner had been turned on immigration policy. Gada’s Zimbabwean grandparents and aunt were at first denied visas, ostensibly because of fears that they would remain in the UK. Stephen Lloyd, Eastbourne’s MP, said he would personally guarantee the family’s departure from the country and raised the case in the House of Commons. David Cameron wrote to the Home Office. The case was reviewed and the decision upheld. Finally, after a petition with 100,000 signatures asking that the Gadas be allowed to come was delivered to Downing Street, the decision was overturned last week ‘on compassionate grounds’ (and because of some mysterious ‘new information and assurances’ that the family would return home after the funeral). But it was political expediency that won out.
Under pressure from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight in February 2003, Tony Blair conceded that the number of asylum seekers coming to Britain was too high and pledged to halve it by the following September. The promise was widely derided, but Blair had done his homework: officials had assessed the impact of Labour’s 2002 Asylum Act, the closure of the Sangatte asylum centre near Calais and other measures to deter refugees from coming to the UK. When September’s figures were announced, the target had been met. David Cameron’s target of cutting net migration to 'tens of thousands' was first made before the 2010 election, then spelled out – 'no ifs, no buts' – in April 2011. A few weeks ago Theresa May called it an 'objective' the government was 'working' towards. But the nearest they ever got was two years ago, when net migration fell to 154,000. Since then it’s risen to 260,000, higher than when Labour left office. Cameron’s mistake was to assume that net migration to and from the rest of the EU, over which he has little control, would stay where it was in 2011 (under 80,000). The Home Office focused its attention on non-EU migrants – students, family members and skilled workers – all now subject to tighter rules. What Cameron didn’t foresee was that net EU migration would almost double. Or as he put it last week, 'our squeeze in one area has been offset by a bulge in another.'
There’s nothing new about children travelling alone through Central America and Mexico to get to the United States. The journey and its dangers were portrayed five years ago in the film Sin Nombre. One character, Sayra, a teenage girl from Honduras, ends up crossing the Rio Grande alone. She is looking out for Casper, a friend she made weeks earlier on the Mexico-Guatemala border. He doesn't make it: he’s shot on the river bank by a rival, 12-year-old gang member. What’s changed since then is a sudden surge in numbers. Unlike adult migrants, most children report to the US Border Patrol once they cross the frontier. In the nine months to June this year, more than 52,000 'alien children' were registered, twice as many as in the previous twelve months. An unknown number have failed to report; died or been attacked on the way; decided that Mexico offers a marginally but sufficiently better life than Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador; or – most likely – been caught and deported by the Mexican authorities.
I took a cab from Bedford station to Yarl’s Wood last Sunday. Britain’s biggest immigration detention centre for women is on the edge of a business park in the middle of the countryside. The guard at the gate said there were ‘people around the premises’ when I asked him about the protest I’d come to join, but he wouldn't tell me where they were. ‘I’m going to have to ask you to leave,’ he said. I walked away through the business park, past a giant warehouse that looked like an empty distribution centre, past the Red Bull Racing wind tunnel, until at last I saw a group of people protesting by a gate. But I was inside the business park and they were on the other side of the fence.
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.
Ten days ago some 200 asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea marched to Jerusalem to protest against their mistreatment by the Israeli government. They had left a new 'open' detention facility in the Negev desert, where they are obliged to spend the night and attend three role calls during the day. They walked for about six hours to the nearest city, Beer-Sheva, my hometown. After spending the night at the bus station, they marched on to Nachshon, a kibbutz that had agreed to put them up for the night. The following day, they continued to the Knesset by bus.
When Trenton Oldfield disrupted the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race last year, he knew his protest against ‘unjust inequalities in British society’ was illegal, but couldn't have foreseen the full extent of its fallout. He was initially charged with disorderly behaviour, but the Crown Prosecution Service – eager to deter protesters in the run-up to the Olympics – upgraded the charge to public nuisance. Sentencing Oldfield to six months in prison, the judge called his actions 'disproportionate', a word that could be applied to the decision itself.
In his recent piece for the LRB on university privatisation, Stefan Collini mentioned that the UK Border Agency sees 'universities and colleges as an easy target in its efforts to cut immigration'. The ancient historian Josephine Quinn describes on her blog this week some of the often insurmountable hurdles facing academics from other countries invited to conferences in the UK. To get a visa, they have to 'demonstrate' they are not going to stay in the country, which means providing: full bank statements for the last six months with explanations of any unusual deposits; a letter from their bank confirming the balance and the date the account was opened; documentation of the origin of any money paid into the account; payslips for the last six months; recent tax returns; and evidence of income from any property or land, including property deeds, mortgage statements, tenancy agreements, land registration documents and crop receipts.
Since the summer, members of the London Chinatown Chinese Association say, the UK Border Agency has been targeting businesses in Chinatown, looking for people who may be living or working in Britain illegally. Most of the raids, according to the LCCA, have been speculative ‘fishing’ trips, based on no intelligence and designed to intimidate. Almost every business in Chinatown has been hit. At one restaurant the officers showed the manager their warrant only after the raid was finished – they were at the wrong address.
The Immigration Bill, introduced today, contains draconian provisions for rooting out unauthorised migrants and a proposal to charge foreigners using the NHS. Whatever message it sends to unauthorised migrants, it waves a dingy flag at migrants in general. Does it matter what they think or how they wave back? Listening to migrants is not a core priority for scholars and number-crunchers in Europe, where an array of statistical work is done on immigration. Economists and social planners want to know whether it’s harmful or handy, a strain on housing stock and public services or a boon to host countries. Development researchers want to know how much wealth it transfers to the global south. The examination is endless; in the process migrants undergo a full battery of tests, but they’re seldom asked to describe their own symptoms.
The sad truth about the vessel that went down off the coast of Lampedusa last week is that there will be others like it, and the loss of life – nearly 300 dead or missing in this case – may well be as bad. It’s tasteless to spin the event as an argument against borders, or to use it to make the opposite case for fully militarised frontiers with forward arrangements of the kind EU states have already tried out in ‘sender countries’ (Gaddafi’s Libya, Mauritania). The fact remains that borders are places of contention; and rights are a scarce resource which people will risk their lives to access. The EU is a champion of universal rights; it would like to see its rights regime exported to all corners of the earth, but Brussels is a long way from Mogadishu or Asmara.
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.
Last summer the government introduced new rules on family reunification, including a minimum income requirement for anyone hoping to bring a partner to Britain from anywhere outside the European Economic Area. The pernicious effects were quickly obvious and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration launched an inquiry in November. Its findings are published today.
The home secretary last week criticised the ‘uncontrolled mass immigration’ that took place before 2010 for its effects on housing and public services. The latest census data show that half the population growth in the decade after 2001 was due to immigration. Theresa May is certainly right to say immigration affects housing demand, but the question is how much. According to May, ‘more than one third of all new housing demand in Britain is caused by immigration’. Nick Boles, a minister under pressure because of his plans to build on the countryside, told the Daily Mail that ‘100,000 new homes a year will be needed to accommodate’ migrants.
According to government sources, there are about 50,000 refugees in Germany. Most of them are from Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and lately from Syria. The German authorities keep them in closed camps, usually a long way from neighbouring towns, and require them to stay put until their cases are heard. Refugees who arrive by plane are kept for months in special quarters at Frankfurt Airport, well out of sight of the other passengers. Until recently, they were given a subsistence allowance of €224 a month, with many local councils issuing food stamps instead of cash. A few weeks ago, the High Court recognised that €224 was not enough for a person to live on and the payment has been raised to €336 a month: €30 less than someone on Hartz IV, the modern German version of the dole. In recent weeks there has been an influx of refugees from Romania, most of them Sinti or Roma. The German policy has been to send them back as quickly as possible: the usual wait for the bureaucratic wheels to turn has miraculously been shortened, officially because they come from a European Union member country.
It may be because I’m a professional historian, and so proprietorial towards my subject, but I’ve always objected to British history’s being used – ‘prostituted’, would be my word for it – in order to inculcate patriotism, as Theresa May’s latest idea for a citizenship test for immigrants seeking British nationality appears to envisage. For a start it must be questionable how far our history ‘defines’ us as a nation, as opposed to our present-day circumstances, and influences from abroad. Second, history taught in order to teach patriotism must be ‘patriotic’ history, which is bound to be selective at best. Third, I rather like the Swedes’ view of their national identity, which is defined much more in terms of their aspirations – equality, and the like – than of their history. Just as well, perhaps; Sweden has quite a number of skeletons in its historical cupboard: as of course does Britain.
On Saturday I sat the ‘Life in the UK’ test, a requirement for foreign nationals who want to apply for citizenship or permanent leave to remain. My nearest test centre was in a dingy basement off the Essex Road. The fluorescent lights weren't doing very well. The invigilators were stone-faced, a bit rude. I'd been forbidden from talking to or looking at my fellow immigrants, about 20 people, mostly men. While waiting for the test to begin all I had to look at was the cover of my American passport.
A grim truce prevails in my commune, in South-West France, between the travellers who live here – ‘gens du voyage’, ‘Tziganes’, ‘Gitans’ – and the indigenous French. The expulsions (none in these parts) have changed little. Like most truces that work, it’s founded on lack of trust and there are any number of assertions doing the rounds. A favourite is that out of fear for their own families, police don’t intervene when crimes are committed by travellers. Last year I was tending the bar at a fundraiser when a fight erupted at the door. A friend was badly injured. As it happened, and it often does, the incident involved travellers. The gendarmes were slow to fetch up but quick, in the weeks that followed, to pursue their suspects.
Two new wings are being opened today at the detention centre for asylum seekers at Harmondsworth, making it 'Europe's largest immigration removal centre', in the Home Office's proudly oxymoronic formulation. Never mind that the centre, as anyone (apart from Damian Green) who's been there will tell you, is already chaotically overcrowded and understaffed. We're not supposed to care about stuff like that: as far as the Home Office is concerned, the people interned at Harmondsworth are 'foreign criminals' who ‘should be sent home at the earliest opportunity' – all no doubt part of the government's progressive strategy for grubbing back votes from the BNP.
The way this unlikely story was reported in the Daily Mail, you'd think the Dubai Royal family was setting up in competition with Ryanair (note gratuitous use of the epithet 'free'): A stowaway hid in the undercarriage of a jumbo jet and survived temperatures of -41c at 25,000ft during a free flight into Britain. The jobless Romanian crouched in the rear-wheel compartment during an extraordinary 800-mile trip from Vienna to London on a Boeing 747 owned by the Dubai royal family.
The St George’s Cross was flying above Southwark Town Hall as we filed into the waiting room to take our seats. About sixty people from all over the world – Ghana, Nigeria, Egypt, France, Afghanistan, Uruguay, Colombia, China – were already there. I had come to watch my wife become a British citizen. She sat, like the other prospective candidates, holding her letter from the Home Office, wrapped up against the London weather. Although most of the assembled group already looked quite well integrated into British society – one was wearing the uniform of a Transport for London official – none of them seemed at home with the climate yet. ‘We are all here for a citizenship ceremony this afternoon, is that correct?’ the council registrar asked. A general mutter of assent. ‘This is a formal occasion so no jeans, no trainers. If you need to go home and change, you can do that now.’ No one had mentioned a dress code. Naturalisation is an arduous process that requires masses of documentation, costs hundreds or even thousands of pounds in legal and Home Office fees, and typically takes years: it seemed a bit tough suddenly to throw up this last hurdle. Fortunately the only inappropriately dressed person was me.
The Australian (Labor) government has just published a white paper (‘Securing Australia – Protecting Our Community') which assures its readers that the terrorist threat to Australia is stronger than ever. External threats remain, of course, but are now made much worse by the dangers of homegrown terrorism, a result of the spread of jihadist propaganda among Australia’s Muslim population. The government is proposing to increase significantly the powers of the federal police – including the right to search the property of suspected ‘terrorists’ without a warrant – and to introduce further (and severe) visa tests on people coming to Australia from 10 unnamed countries. Sound familiar? It should, because the prime minister, Kevin Rudd, has acknowledged that in preparing the legislation the Australians consulted the British government. What lies behind all this?
In the 1960s and 1970s many thousands of people fled Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Countries like Thailand may not have welcomed the refugees with open arms, but they did let them stay. In the late 1980s Thailand also allowed tens of thousands of Burmese refugees to set up more or less permanent camps along the border. That relatively humane policy seems to have vanished. The deportation last month of 4000 Hmong refugees from Thailand back to Laos is part of a broader story. Cambodia recently sent a group of Uighurs back to China, where they are almost sure to face trial, torture and long prison terms.
What’s the difference between Martha Stewart, ‘lifestyle guru’, ‘third most powerful woman in America’ etc, who was refused entry into the UK last year, and the 16 foreigners who have just been barred by the Home Office? Jacqui Smith’s initiative – name the naughties – was announced on Tuesday, with some fanfare and much triumphalism. It fingers people likely to stir up hatred or ‘glorify terrorist violence’, which obviously isn’t Stewart’s bag, and not all of them have criminal records, which obviously is, yet somewhere here there’s a bigger difference. It was about this time last year that Stewart was planning a visit to Britain but a few days before she was due to jet in, she was told she couldn't come. Her criminal past in the US was the problem. She wasn't convicted of insider trading, but she did fib to investigators during an inquiry into the sale of shares in the cancer-drug company ImClone hours before the public announcement that its wonder therapy, Erbitux, had failed to win FDA approval. That was in 2001; Stewart offloaded more than $200,000 worth of shares. In 2004 she was sentenced to five months in jail, which she served, coming out under supervised release in 2005. She famously told Barbara Walters that she wasn’t the only irreproachable human being in history to be sent down: ‘Look at Nelson Mandela.’