Refugee Solidarity Summit hears of racism and injustice, pledges to fight back

Campaigners from the TUC, the Green Party and many migrant organisations gathered in London on Saturday to discuss how to fight the government’s racist policies and scapegoating. Amy Downham reports.

Audience listens to speakers
Photo: Steve Eason

Saturday’s Refugee Solidarity Summit, hosted by london2calais, involved around 100 people – a diverse mix in terms of race, age and gender, including many young women in particular.

Wilf Sullivan, TUC Race Equality Officer, spoke on the role of the unions in migration struggles, while Green Party leader Natalie Bennett stressed the importance of sharing individual stories that people could relate to. She was followed by an impressive talk by Zoe Gardner of Movement Against Xenophobia. One of Zoe’s key points, echoed by other speakers throughout the day, is that what we are facing need not be a huge crisis. If managed properly it need not have a negative effect on anyone. As she says, the numbers of people who want to come to Britain are not huge – if every single one of the estimated 6,000 refugees in Calais was admitted, for example, that would mean only 1 refugee for every 10,000 people.

Zoe stressed that putting up higher fences and tightening immigration laws and benefits will only cause more death, and will certainly not put an end to the crisis. But austerity, politics and the so-called crisis are all intertwined.

Sophie Williams from Docs not Cops presented a workshop titled “Refugees Welcome? Struggles upon Arrival”, including details about the current rules and the 2014 Immigration Act which is being implemented in phases.

  • Poster reads "NHS hospital treatment is not free for everyone" Signs in hospitals are now telling patients that the NHS is “not free for everyone”. Non British citizens will have to pay for their healthcare by paying an “immigration health surcharge” of £150 for students and £200 for non students.
  • If you have a visa but haven’t paid the surcharge, you don’t have a European health card or you’re undocumented, you can be sent a bill for NHS treatment. Every hospital sets its own prices for different procedures.
  • People in these situations can also be refused treatment if their medical situation is “non urgent”. Overseas officers are now present at hospitals and have the final say, after consulting with doctors, on whether or not someone who isn’t a British citizen is in need of urgent care or can wait for treatment.
  • If you have been granted immigration status and are working in the NHS, within five years your annual income must rise to over £35,000 – failing this you will face deportation. Not even senior nurses earn this much.
  • This measure will affect 12% of nurses by 2020. There is likely to be a crisis in the NHS’s ability to care for patients when the first nurses are told they have to leave – at this stage it will affect 4 percent of nurses nationally, but this figure is much higher in some areas. Ultimately the rules will allow for a supply of nurses trained abroad, who will provide cheap labour but will not be able to settle here.
  • Those deported, who have worked hard and contributed to society, will be sent back to their country no matter what the circumstances are for them at “home”.

Sophie Williams and Matt Goldborough, video by Steve Eason

Matt Goldborough, an immigration lawyer and part of London2Calais, spoke of the huge injustices facing people seeking asylum in the UK or even renewing their immigration status. For example if their immigration status has run out and they are waiting for re-application, they are banned from work in the period and have all benefits cut too. He described the case of a 17-year-old girl who travelled here to escape trafficking on a passport that said she was 28. The immigration officers refused her asylum, saying she couldn’t have been trafficked because she was 28 and not 17. The bureaucracy of the legal system is astonishing.

Shanice McBean and Anindya Bhattacharyya, video by Steve Eason

Shanice McBean from Sisters Uncut and Black Dissidents talked about the situation in Yarls Wood Detention Centre: she echoed Matt’s condemnation of the injustice of the legal system and described the awful conditions at the detention centre. Campaigners have already organised protests calling for the centre to be shut down. The next demo takes place on 7 November and they are hoping it will be the biggest yet.

Many people mentioned the scaremongering that politicians have whipped up about the current situation, and how they have tried to label people as “good” refugees and “bad” economic migrants. There was lots of discussion about how we approach these issues with other people on the left and with people who aren’t politically involved. Some people are on very low wages and are genuinely scared for their jobs. How do we expose the government and show that they are using the refugees and migrants as scapegoats?

There was an overwhelming consensus that we need to unite together over this issue on four levels:

  • to involve more people in campaigning around migration.
  • to make the argument that open borders will not result in less jobs. The numbers aren’t that big and are manageable. The problem lies with austerity and inequality, not refugees and migrants.
  • to expose racism in politics today, such as Cameron’s use of the word “swarm” to refer to migrants. We need to challenge the racism that underlies the system of borders.
  • also in the short term we need to provide legal and humanitarian help and support to migrants and refugees in the UK


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