Informers and aliens in our midst

January 10, 1997

"We took no notice of these pedestrians. We didn't know if they felt sorry for us or if they were laughing at us. But doubtless we no longer existed for them, because they wished us not to exist, so they did not have to look at us, because they passed by us quickly and mostly with their faces turned away, because it was imperative to forget everything quickly and never see anything". (Jiri Weil, Life with a Star)

After the second world war imaginative and enlightened statesmen were determined to prevent a return to the atrocities of the Nazi regime and its Holocaust. They believed, in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that "the highest aspiration of the common people was the advent of a world in which human beings would enjoy freedom of speech and of belief, and freedom from fear". They instituted international standards and fundamental safeguards for asylum procedures and, as a result, many refugees were able to flee persecution.

The parents and grandparents of many politicians in Europe today were themselves refugees; world leaders in Africa, Asia and Latin America include individuals who were exiled in Europe; a remarkable number of leading scientists, intellectuals, musicians and artists have been refugees. And yet, the sons and daughters of the postwar consensus on human rights and liberties are turning away and implementing one retrogressive measure after another. The measures they have chosen are inhuman in their intentions, and degrading for all of us who, as citizens of European states, are being contaminated by their xenophobic shabbiness.

In Britain 1996 has been a dreadful year. Another Asylum and Immigration Act was passed, social security benefits for most asylum-seekers were stopped, and the "white list" of countries where there is held to be no serious risk of persecuation, was extended. The act stops income support, housing and council tax benefit for asylum-seekers and requires employers and education authorities to report on the immigration status of employees and students. The stop on benefits has led to asylum applicants nearing destitution. The refusal of applications from "safe" countries has led to asylum-seekers being deported and disappearing into the custody of the authorities from whom they had fled.

The denial of basic rights to asylum-seekers and the way in which they are being stigmatised not only marginalise some of the most vulnerable people in the world but also contaminate our culture, by inserting the notion that some among us are less human than others. That notion is horrifyingly familiar to anyone who has studied why so many civilians colluded in the genocidal policies of the second world war, and, more recently, the former Yugoslavia.

The rotten process starts with xenophobic rhetoric and the dehumanising of aliens, and becomes entrenched when the authorities require ordinary citizens to act as informers and to assist in policing, arrest and detention. The governments of the European Union are transferring responsibility for much of the policing and scrutiny of immigration status to personnel in the public and private sectors. These personnel, and their organisations, are becoming enmeshed in a culture of xenophobic suspicion and fear of disorder. Universities and colleges are particularly vulnerable to the insidiousness of these measures because of the rate of staff turnover and the number of students.

From this month, universities, along with all other employers, are required to check and report on the immigration status of candidates for all posts, and for all courses and to charge overseas student rates to asylum-seekers, even those who have been resident for three years (of whom there are more than 30,000 awaiting the outcome of their cases).

Asylum-seekers, deprived of social security benefits and access to education, lose hope of ever recovering their skills, and seek desperately for any means of making a living - easy prey for opportunists who can exploit their vulnerability and criminalise them in the underworld of the labour market. Their loss is our loss because asylum-seekers who may sink into the abyss include scholars, scientists and professional people who have much to contribute.

Throughout 1996 the British government has been putting in place the measures which will tie university staff into ethical knots. The new year opens with these measures coming into force. Will we turn aside, like the Czech pedestrians? After all these pedestrians were ordinary citizens, Weil's former neighbours and friends. How will we cope with the shame of knowing that we are implicated in inhuman and unnecessary measures which are creating aliens in our midst?

Elinor Kelly is senior lecturer in the department of adult and continuing education at the University of Glasgow.

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