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Dispersing the Myths about Asylum

Book Review by Helen Shooter, March 2003

Review of 'No One is Illegal', Steve Cohen, Trentham Books 17.99

'Asylum Madness' is the logo the 'Sun' is running above the articles it is pumping out daily against refugees in Britain. In fact it more accurately describes the level of hysteria that the right wing press and politicians have been stirring up. Steve Cohen's book 'No One Is Illegal: Asylum and Immigration Control Past and Present' helps to debunk some of those myths around refugees.

Cohen has been an immigration lawyer and campaigner for refugees for 20 years. His book is a collection of his articles published in various journals and books from 1988 to last year. He concentrates on the treatment and experiences of Jewish immigrants in Britain. The 1905 Aliens Act was the first immigration legislation. It targeted Jewish people. Cohen shows how immigration legislation has not just been about keeping people out. It has also been about discriminating against those who get in.

From the beginning, access to state benefits has depended on immigration status. Jewish immigrants were some of the first targets of the racist scapegoating that has been repeated against each new set of immigrants and refugees. As the Tory MP William Evans Gordon said in parliament in 1902, 'Not a day passes but English families are ruthlessly turned out to make room for foreign invaders. The rates are burdened with the education of thousands of foreign children.' Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

In May 1938 visa restrictions were imposed on nationals from Germany and Austria, which hit Jews who were fleeing the Nazis. In the early years of the war Jews were interned in camps in Britain. In the Wharf Mill camp in Bury some 2,000 Jews were imprisoned behind barbed wire. There were no tables or benches, people had to eat standing. There were just 18 water taps in the camp for everyone to use for washing. It's hardly the proud tradition of welcoming refugees to Britain that press and politicians like to talk about while they back ever tougher legislation.

Cohen shows that both Tory and Labour governments have created laws to attack immigrants and refugees. 'British immigration laws split the century in three--the first being controls against Jewish workers fleeing anti-Semitism, the second being controls against black workers leaving the ravages of colonialism, and the last decade being controls against anyone escaping wars and famine,' he says.

New Labour's policy towards refugees has gone a step further. It has created a new poor law, argues Cohen, where the legislation restricted the mobility of the poor inside Britain in the early 17th century. Refugees today are forcibly dispersed to often sub standard accommodation across Britain, or can be dumped in centres with segregated health and education provision.

Cohen's book is a resource for those standing up against the hysteria against refugees. As it's a series of self contained articles there is inevitably a degree of repetition and the argument about why governments have used immigration controls is, unfortunately, broken up throughout the book. But in his conclusion Cohen takes a clear and principled position that it is not possible to have 'fair' or 'non-racist' immigration controls.

He praises two 'Socialist Worker' pamphlets written in 1996 and 1999 for standing up against the attacks on refugees. But he disagrees with the way they use statistics to challenge the myths over refugees. He claims this gives a 'hostage to fortune' and argues that the focus should be on why all immigration controls should be abolished. I think he's wrong on this point. In this climate of 'asylum madness' the real situation about refugees has become detached from reality. Highlighting the facts, figures and concrete examples helps put perspective on the current hysteria and exposes the lies and hypocrisy. In this ideological battle the wealth of historical examples and the unpicking of Tory and New Labour legislation in Cohen's book plays a very useful role.

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