What Labour must do on immigration

What Labour must do on immigration

Instead of indulging in this race to the bottom on immigration, Keir Starmer could offer to protect people in need argues Ravishaan Rahel Muthiah, Communications Director at JCWI.

At the Conservative Party conference this year, the party faithful eagerly applauded as Home Secretary Suella Braverman once again took the opportunity to deliver her signature dog-whistle racism and rampage against the “hurricane” of mass migration saying people who move are living “parallel lives” to ordinary Brits. She said: “They’re not embracing British values, and they’re not taking part in British life …”

Braverman might genuinely believe that Keir “take a knee” Starmer’s Labour party is the “properly woke” mob “advocating for open borders”, but sadly, she is mistaken - the opposition is closer to the policies of her own party than those of us advocating for a world free from border violence.

As Labour takes the stage for its own conference, and with a general election looming, immigration is yet again one of the key battlegrounds. While the government has introduced countless laws and policies targeting people who move, the Labour Party has seemingly stood by and allowed them to dictate the realms of debate, doing little to oppose these policies or provide a positive alternative.

Instead, despite Labour's lead in the polls, they have continued to ramp up their anti-migrant language and policy pledges. This month, Starmer said Labour would treat people involved in cross-Channel people-smuggling as “terrorists”, saying those who disagree were “un-British”. Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper went further to say: "Labour has a serious plan to end the government's wasteful spending on hotels and return people who have no right to be here." This is a worrying trend for a party which appears to be a government in waiting - particularly so in a political climate where language inflames hatred and violence towards migrants.

Keir Starmer and his party have the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the values of compassion, equality and community which many believe in. Worryingly, their positioning on immigration has been anything but.

Last year, Labour attempted to present themselves as the low-immigration party. This month, Keir Starmer likened people who cross the Channel to those who are part of terrorist operations. And while he pledged to bin the Rwanda deal, process peoples asylum claims faster and called the cruel Illegal Migration Act unsustainable, the language of division is consistent across the parties.

With a Human Rights lawyer as leader, protecting international law and the lives of people who move should fit well within the scope of Labour's policy offering. Pledging to scrap the Rwanda plan is a good start, but Labour must recommit to protecting the universal right to seek asylum, regardless of how people arrive here. This will also mean repealing the Illegal Migration Act and Nationality and Borders Act. Instead of indulging in this race to the bottom on immigration, Labour could offer to protect people in need and establish routes to safety through setting up functioning resettlement schemes, expanding family reunion routes and issuing travel documents to people stuck in Northern France.

That people are left to die in our seas is a travesty - this is a political choice, and could stop today if our leaders adopted a constructive and compassionate approach towards migration. European collaboration is imperative to ensure people who move are treated with dignity across the continent, but this should be through European-wide responsibility sharing to care for people seeking safety, and by rejecting the cross-border policies that fuel border violence.

Starmer recently indicated he could do a deal with Brussels involving the UK taking a quota of asylum seekers who arrive to the EU in exchange for being able to return people who cross the Channel. The clients we represent are caught up in endless waits for Home Office appointments and are forced to countlessly and senselessly relive the trauma which led them to arrive in a cold Home Office interrogation room in the first place. A politics of compassion would see such removal or returns agreements scrapped and instead focus on making asylum processes fair and just.

Anti-migrant rhetoric is not just confined to those who seek asylum. In May, Labour blamed migrant workers for low pay - implying they bring the market and wages down and saying we need to “wean the economy off immigration” and “train UK-based workers instead”. While we should be training people across the country, it’s false to claim migrant workers have any impact on low wages - these are determined by corporations and the government.

As the party of workers it would be much more fitting for Labour to promote the right to work, and aim for a country where everyone can support themselves and their families with dignity. By giving the right to work to all regardless of immigration status, including repealing the Illegal Working Offence and scrapping right to work checks, Labour could forge a new compassionate pathway that boosts our communities and our economy. Too often we hear stories of people without papers who have lived here for years, wanting to work and earn a living but instead are dismayed to find they are banned from working and at risk of being criminalised, detained or deported if they do so.

Everyone in this country deserves decent pay, safe, dignified working conditions, and protections if our bosses seek to take advantage of us. The party of labour should champion better protection for all workers rights, including the right to unionise. Those who are unable to work should be given support through our state safety net, by abolishing the evil “no recourse to public funds” policy which excludes most migrants from state support and pushes thousands of people into destitution each year.

A human rights centred politics would end detention and deportation. The UK is the only country in Europe that allows people to be detained indefinitely, and the Illegal Migration Act will only make things worse, allowing people to be indefinitely detained at the whim of the Home Secretary. No country which values human rights would detain people against their will - Labour has an opportunity to lead the way and commit to ending all immigration detention.

Isolating people on barges, in military barracks, mouldy and insect infested temporary accommodation is pure cruelty. And the alternative is so much simpler: through housing people safely in their communities we can close down asylum hotels and all the other inhumane and inefficient ways we currently segregate people. Instead we can allow all people to live and thrive as part of our communities.

While the government ignores the real existential crisis of climate breakdown and rips up our net zero commitments, senselessly dragging us towards an impending climate armageddon, Labour could offer an alternative which sees our country care for people and the planet. The first step would be recognising and addressing climate displacement through providing a route to safety for people displaced by climate breakdown and incorporating migration as a key part of our country’s global commitment to tackling climate change. And a compassionate government whose principles are rooted in human rights would aim to make these policy changes in their first 100 days in office.

The debate around immigration has become as toxic as it has ever been, with Braverman’s most recent tirade drawing parallels with Enoch Powell’s infamous River of Blood speech. Feeding into that culture will only foster more long-term division between our communities, which will come back to hurt us in coming years.

Labour has the opportunity to come out and say they will leave no one behind. That instead, they will challenge and rectify how the immigration system is a tool to serve racism, sexism, homophobia, environmental injustice and other forms of oppression. This couldn’t be any more welcome and will stand in stark contrast to Suella Braverman who keenly singled out groups of migrants, stating being gay or a woman isn’t enough to claim asylum and even picking a fight with national treasure Sir Elton John.

It’s not that complicated. Labour needs to go back to its roots. That is, building on community and demonstrating solidarity with ordinary people, whatever their race, ethnicity or country of origin. Labour needs to champion local solutions that are centred in care and by providing inclusive spaces and programmes that promote community building. We are stronger together, this is a fundamental tenet of the labour movement. It is this to which Labour needs to return.

Ravishaan Rahel Muthiah is the Communications Director at Joint Council for Welfare of Immigrants.

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