Beware False Friends

Tom Vickers, Refugees, Capitalism and the British State: Implications for Social Workers, Volunteers & Activists

Ashgate, 222pp, £55.00, ISBN 9781409441526

reviewed by David Renton

For 20 years, refugees have been travelling to Britain in large numbers; for 20 years they have been refused employment while their cases are considered by the Home Office, a process which can take many years. While their applications are assessed they are forcibly dispersed around the country, disrupting the networks of communal solidarity which have sustained all previous generations of migrants to this country. Successive governments have reduced the benefits open to refugees, pushing many towards destitution. Refugees and their children have been imprisoned or deported. Every generation of the oppressed, throughout history, have rebelled; on occasion even the Jews awaiting murder at Auschwitz resisted. But although refugee protests have taken place, they have been isolated and short-lived. Refugees have not formed a coherent class of protesters. Why not?

Two of the most obvious explanations would begin with the situation of refugees living in Britain. First, they are individually isolated, they do not have contacts through work with the wider population. Unlike, for example, black mine-workers in South Africa they do not have a significant foothold within the economy. Some of the forms of protest which refugees have attempted - individual hunger strikes, brief uprisings at camps such as the Campsfield detention centre - are by their nature incapable of becoming routine.

Second, the refugee process is intended to culminate in an individual applicant for asylum requesting to become a British citizen. The process is weighted against refugees. They are disbelieved routinely, by Home Office decision makers and by Immigration and Asylum Judges. In few other countries do refugees have as poor a prospect of being granted refugee status – application by application – as they do in Britain. Hardly anywhere else is there quite the same degree of institutional racism, disbelief or ‘compassion fatigue’. But the system is not entirely unfair; there is still enough hope (just) to give applicants a motive to buy in to the system.

Vickers’ book, which combines a restatement of certain Marxist categories of the state with a detailed history of post-war labour and refugee migration to Newcastle, adds a third category of explanation. What he describes as ‘the refugee relations industry’, a successor to the race relations industry of the 1960s, acts as a mediating force between on the one hand the hopes of refugees and (on the other) the institutional demands of the police, the Home Office, the courts, etc. At the heart of the book is a short, but telling interview conducted by Vickers in 2008 with a Community Relations Officer of the Newcastle Community Relations Council (who himself had been in post since 1974), in which the Officer boasted of the absence of a single black protest in the city during the period he had been in post.

Thirty-four years is a long time, and no reader will be surprised to learn that it has included high-profile racist murders, deportations of Newcastle citizens, far-right candidates standing on expressly racist platforms, and the periodic emergence of youth campaigns, organising the city’s black population along political lines. On any objective measure, the loss of one form of protest (the public demonstration) has disempowered communities, making them collectively more vulnerable.

Yet the situation is ripe with contradictions. Refugees themselves have bought into refugee management services, volunteering as interpreters, as unpaid cashiers in shops, as advisers, secretaries, computer technicians, etc. Volunteering has to be better, after all, than just waiting at home every day and doing nothing. The result is a complex and shifting range of responses, with some groups perceived by refugees as little more than the Home Office employing a different acronym, and others being seen as more understanding for a time (being viewed positively by refugees is, of course, no guarantee of continued state funding, but quite the reverse). Vickers predicts a future of continuing repression and a privatisation of formerly state-run refugee services under the impact of austerity. If new movements of refugee protests are to develop, he warns, new generations will need to relearn the old motto: beware false friends.