On refugees, Cameron must prioritise a humanitarian response

Britain should not forget its own history of exploitation and destabilising intervention

 

Recently the popular BBC religious affairs programme ‘Songs of Praise’ broadcast from the migrant camp in Calais. The outpouring of bile this provoked showed h how ugly the current debate on migration has become.

We have had the prime minster describing desperate refugees as a ‘swarm’ and foreign secretary Phillip Hammond claiming Europe would not be able to protect its “standard of living and social infrastructure” if it had to absorb millions of migrants from Africa.

It did not seem to occur to him that Europe owes its current standard of living and social infrastructure, not only to the exploitation past and present of Africa’s minerals and raw materials but also to the efforts of millions of hardworking European citizens of African descent.

Hammond’s comments have drawn criticism from anti-racist campaigners and Amnesty International who point out that Calais is a symptom of a global refugee crisis which is seeing Syrian, Eritrean, Sudanese and Iraqis escaping a myriad of crises to neighbouring countries.

If the image of people rounded up in a stadium in Greece is shocking, it’s the product of Britain refusing to co-operate with the EU on how to deal with this global issue in a humanitarian way.

I commend prominent members of the Jewish community for calling on David Cameron to prioritise a humanitarian response. To remember that during the Holocaust, the national papers shamefully denigrated Jewish people fleeing Hitler as they landed here, but also to remember that we have a proud tradition of being a refuge for those in need.

The experience of the Jewish community in the twentieth century should remind us where this sort of racism can lead.

For centuries lies have been spread about immigrants taking the jobs of established British communities, or being the cause of economic recession and downturn.

From Jewish people in the nineteenth century, Irish people in the early twentieth century, Africans, Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani communities in the post-war era through to Polish, Romanian, Bulgarian and Eastern European migrants in the last decade, immigrants have always been the convenient scapegoat. Calais refugees are only the most recent target.

The only thing driving down living standards is the Tory government’s austerity agenda – £12 billion worth of cuts to the welfare state and the £3 billion cuts to public services announced in the budget. This is slowing down growth to the point of stagnation and is also making living standards worse.

The fact is that our foreign policy, which involved military intervention into parts of Africa, has resulted in destabilisation. We need to have a compassionate response towards people risking horrific deaths in the Mediterranean who are clearly desperate to escape poverty, war and social unrest. These situations are hard for us to imagine in Britain.

Faced with situations like this, those at the top sometimes need ordinary people to be their conscience. Critical Mass are planning a mass bike ride to Calais and the sign up is nearing one thousand people. Over 60,000 people are petitioning Cameron to provide medical support to migrants in Calais, who have been injured trying to get to Britain, and whose numbers include pregnant women and children.

The toxic political climate on immigration is bad for our higher education sector, bad for business and bad for a city like London which should glory in being an open city. As for the media commentators, they should be aware that their irresponsible and hate-filled coverage could lead to human tragedy on a massive scale.

Diane Abbott is the Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington. She is currently running in the selection to be Labour’s London mayoral candidate.

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