Imagine you wake one fine morning and find you are living in a war zone, aerial bombardments are a weekly occurrence, family members have been killed, tortured or imprisoned and the children’s school destroyed. You love your country, but frightened and desperate you decide to leave in search of a new home, in a peaceful place, where you can study, work and have a chance to live out your days happily.
Or you live in a country where you are persecuted for your religious beliefs, like Mizrak (not her real name) from Eritrea: arrested and imprisoned aged 16 for being Pentecostal Christian, in a land where intolerance rules and the dominant doctrine is Orthodox Christianity. After months behind bars her family bribed prison guards to release her and she was smuggled out of the country into Sudan; then on to France with another unknown man, and eventually to Britain, where she knew nobody.
Mizrak arrived (aged 17) as an unaccompanied minor – that’s a child alone – frightened, with a rucksack of clothes and not a penny to her name. Claimed asylum, but was twice denied, because the presiding judge did not accept her claim to be Eritrean, believing instead that she was Ethiopian, and ordered her to return there within 28 days. The Ethiopian consulate however, refused to issue Mizrak with a passport, because, they said – quite rightly – that she is Eritrean.
Nationless, she remains in the UK, living under a cloud of suffocating uncertainty: unable to work, with no home, no prospects, and little hope. Now 20 years of age she would like to study to become a dental nurse, but is forced to live as an outcast, finding illegal work and temporary shelter where she can – with other Eritrean’s or a kind stranger. Her optimism and strength to persevere comes from the very faith that she was persecuted for; and thank God she has it.
A Political Inconvenience
Compared to other European countries the number of asylum seekers arriving in Britain is relatively small. According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, in 2014 “the UK received 31,300 new applications for asylum [a mere 5% of total asylum claims made in all EU countries]”, this is close to the average for the last ten years and represents 10% of total net migration. Germany, by comparison received 173,000 applications, Sweden over 75,000.
The journey to safety and a new home is often horrendous, fraught with danger and uncertainty; those who make it to the UK are met with an asylum system that is in many ways unjust and dysfunctional. Fragile people in need of emotional warmth and practical help are commonly treated with disdain by an austere Government that sees asylum seekers, not as vulnerable human beings in need of compassionate support, but as a political inconvenience, which they would like to go away.
At this point it’s probably worth clarifying what an asylum seeker is. UNHCR explains that, “an asylum seeker is someone who has applied for asylum and is waiting for a decision [from the national government] as to whether or not they are a refugee”. And a refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality.”
The overwhelming majority, perhaps all of the asylum seekers who make the arduous, often terrifying journey to Britain are refugees. The largest numbers come from Eritrea (some claiming to be Eritrean are indeed Ethiopians), Pakistan and Syria; most, if given the choice, would prefer to stay in their country of birth.
Asylum seekers are men, women and children who, through no fault of their own have either been denied the freedoms that are the right of every human being, or are caught in a violent conflict between warring factions. Everyone has a right to seek asylum in any country that has signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, meaning there is no such thing as an ‘illegal, or bogus asylum seeker’: there are simply human beings in need of protection.
Poverty and Social Exclusion
Fuelled by duplicitous politicians and an irresponsible right-wing media, misconceptions about asylum seekers abound; false impressions fed and exploited by government to shape anti-migrant policies, determine Home Office practice and distort behaviour.
Key among these assumptions is the suggestion that asylum seekers ‘choose’ the UK because it’s a ‘soft touch’, and offers ‘generous’ benefit payments. Nonsense. As the Refugee Council (RC) found in their detailed study, most people know little or nothing about the welfare system and those who have a choice of destination at all, make their decision based on altogether more rational common-sense factors: linguistic; the presence of family members; ‘colonial or historical’ links; a “general perception of the UK as a safe and politically stable country.” Those who travel with the aid of ‘agents’ or ‘facilitators’ (criminal gangs who exploit the vulnerable and desperate) – and these are the majority – have no idea where they are being taken until they arrive.
Asylum seekers are not entitled to mainstream welfare payments, nor are they allowed to work. Far from living the ‘good life’ in ‘soft touch’ Britain, the Refugee Council states that most asylum seekers are “living in poverty and experience poor health and hunger. Many families are not able to pay for the basics such as clothing, powdered milk and nappies” as well as food and clothing, making them isolated and vulnerable to health problems.
The ban on working makes no sense, and can only be understood as a misguided attempt to deter. It is a flawed law that has been widely criticized, the House of Commons Briefing paper (10th June 2015) records, for more than a decade, by NGOs, trade unions, churches and Parliamentarians. Allowing asylum seekers to work would have a range of advantages, as outlined in the paper. It would benefit the UK economy and lessen the cost to the taxpayer; reduce asylum seekers’ vulnerability to working illegally (and being exploited – pay can be as low as £2 an hour), and alleviate many difficulties, such as “social and economic exclusion, de-skilling, low self-esteem… and improve asylum seekers’ integration and employment prospects.”
Unable to generate any income (legally at least), asylum seekers are totally dependent on the State. Once an application for asylum has been accepted, the Home Office provides basic accommodation (often ‘hard to let’ properties which Council tenants do not want to live in, offered on a no-choice basis), commonly in the North-East of the country where rents are lower than London and the South; as well as financial support amounting to £36.95 per person, per week. This pittance was set in August 2015 and is a substantial reduction on the previous level of support, affecting families and single parents most acutely (a parent with one child now receives £73.10 per week, compared to £96.90 before the changes). When introduced in 1999, asylum support was set at 70 per cent of the amount a British national on income support would receive; now it is closer to 40%.
With this, people are expected to feed themselves, cover travel costs and all other living expenses. According to “The Children’s Society, “children and families would need nearly three times more than they currently receive in order to be pulled out of poverty.”
Asylum support amounts to less than 0.1 per cent of government welfare spending, the decision to freeze/reduce payments is part of a broader economic ideology of austerity, which is causing widespread suffering throughout the country. And is based – one assumes – on a desire to deter potential migrants to the UK – falsely believing people are driven by financial incentives.
The appallingly low level of payments, together with total restrictions on working, is driving vulnerable people, ma
ny of whom have been victims of violent abuse and torture, into extreme poverty and social isolation, which in numerous cases leads to deteriorating mental health, resulting in depression and anxiety. Other than working illegally, people have no choice but to sit around and wait while the Home Office assesses their asylum application and reaches a decision.
The government says they (aim) “to process simple claims within six months”, but few claims are simple, and with legal appeals and Home Office delays, the actual time for most runs into years. Currently it is taking between two and three months to even register an application for asylum support, and during this time no financial assistance or accommodation is provided. People, including single mothers and children, are literally homeless and destitute, reliant on charities, food-banks and the kindness of various diaspora groups for their survival.
Criminalizing and imprisoning Asylum Seekers
Asylum seekers are innocent people fleeing persecution, they are not criminals: nevertheless large numbers are routinely imprisoned in Immigration Detention Centers (of which there are thirteen). The UK government locks up more asylum seekers than any other country in Europe, and holds them for longer. In 2014 over 13,000 were detained, either whilst their claims were being assessed or prior to deportation.
Detention is an expensive (around £100 per-day, per person), unnecessary process; it is widely criticised by NGO’s and concerned groups working in the sector including the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, as is the treatment of those held inside the prison-like institutions. Women are particularly badly treated, sexually threatened and intimidated by poorly trained staff.
In July 2015, despite procrastination from the Home Office, the ‘detained fast track’ process was suspended, and in September after a damning report by the All Party Parliamentary Groups on Refugees and Migration, the House of Commons passed a motion calling for “radical reform of the immigration detention system”, to include the introduction of a maximum time limit on how long people can be detained. Whilst these moves are welcome, the answer to Immigration Detention is simple and clear; end it, close down these prison-like centers, process all claims within the community (more humane and less expensive) and treat those seeking sanctuary with respect and compassion.
Reform is Urgently Needed
The hopes and aspirations of asylum seekers are no different to those of most people: to work, to study, to live peacefully and build a good and decent life for themselves and their families. They come from countries where human rights are violated and civil liberties denied, by governments that oppress, rather than serve the people; many are traumatised and have mental health issues as a result of their ordeal and find the asylum system overwhelming and hostile. Securing legal support to help navigate the legislative maze and battle the Home Office, is becoming increasing difficult as a result of government’s cuts to legal aid: access to justice being systematically denied to the poorest, most vulnerable members of society.
In its current, intensely bureaucratic form, the asylum process – particularly for people who are frightened of official agencies with their endless forms and impersonal approach – is at best intimidating, at worse dysfunctional. One can only assume this is by design, and is predicated on the false notion that if the process is slow, the support inadequate, the official treatment of people in need cold and indifferent, then they will stop coming. It is a system that is causing hardship to thousands of innocent people, and is in need of urgent, far-reaching reform.
Migration is a major political and social issue throughout Europe; in the UK it is a highly emotive matter, distorted by the rabid right wing media and irresponsible politicians.
The numbers of asylum seekers (people fleeing conflict and persecution of one kind or another) arriving in the UK are small, tiny in fact – in 2014, according to UNHCR, a total of 31,400 people applied for asylum in Britain, compared to Turkey – 87,800, Sweden – 75,100, and Italy – 63,700. At the end of 2014,UNHCR relates, “refugees, pending asylum cases and stateless persons made up just 0.24% of the UK population.” Hardly a national crisis then, as the isolationist Conservative government, and the press would have us believe.
Of the 25,870 decisions on asylum reached in 2014 (note: these were decisions not applications) over 60% were refusals. This, however, is not the end of the road for the unsuccessful applicants, but a bureaucratic hurdle on a long, stressful journey that sees asylum seekers treated as outcasts and criminals, thrown into poverty and social isolation.
The arduous, long-winded process is roughly as follows: Apply for asylum – receive £35.96 per week and some tatty accommodation, if refused, appeal (66% of appeals were refused in the year ending March 2015, and only 29% allowed) – continue to receive the cash and a roof over your head; if the appeal fails but new evidence is forthcoming, or a change in the law has occurred, make a ‘fresh’ claim, and continue to collect the asylum support, which as well as accommodation includes access to the National Health Service. If this fails, appeal one last time. Refusal can lead to deportation – voluntary or forced.
Escaping Prison-Camp Eritrea
The UNHCR records that “the top three countries of origin [with more or less the same numbers from each], are: Eritrea, Iran, and Pakistan.”
In 2014, 3,568 people sought asylum in the UK from Eritrea, this is double the previous year’s total. They flee the country because of intense religious and political persecution, and to avoid a lifetime of military service – for men and women – in a country where human rights are virtually non-existent. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW) the most common patterns of abuse include: “forced labor during conscription; arbitrary arrests, detentions, and disappearances; torture and other degrading treatment in detention; restrictions on freedoms of expression, conscience, and movement; and repression of religious freedom.”
Eritrea also holds the title for highest levels of child labour in the world as well as the greatest levels of media censorship.
People sent back face the wrath of the ruling regime. A detailed report published by the UN in June 2015, reveals that returnees “are often arrested and detained for up to three years,” during which time they are “systematically ill-treated to the point of torture.”
In March 2015 the UK government issued new, and flawed, ‘guidance’ on Eritrean asylum seekers, stating it was safe for them to be returned to their country of origin. The Home Office responded swiftly and the percentage of applicants being granted leave to remain plummeted from 73% in the first quarter of 2015 to 36% in the second. In light of the UN report and widespread outrage this misguided ‘guidance’ is now under review.
Despite the government’s aim to process appeals within two months of an initial decision, it can take years before asylum seekers receive a final decision. Home Office figures state that as of March 2015, 21,651 applications “received since April 2006… were pending a decision” – positive or negative. That’s ten years. And these vulnerable people – many of whom have been through hell – can do nothing but wait; living in poverty under a cloud of intense suspicion.
They cannot work: a nonsensical, politically motivated regulation makes it illegal for asylum seekers to be gainfully employed; they cannot claim state benefits; and are completely reliant on asylum support of either £35.39 cash per week (under section 95 of the immigration act), or an Azure payment card topped up weekly, with £35.39, and no cash (under section 4). As of March 2015 there were 15,000, failed asylum seekers and their dependents in receipt of support; almost 5,000 were being supported under Section 4.
The Azure card is a humiliating, deeply flawed system. The cards are only valid in specified retailers and can only be used, the Red Cross report, to “buy food, essential toiletries, clothing and credit for mobile phones. ”It was launched in 2006, costs £1.5 million a year to run and has been widely criticized: “users struggle to provide enough food for their children and other dependents”; it further stigmatizes asylum seekers, who are already socially marginalized, and living in poverty.
School trips are not covered, nor are travel costs, making “getting to essential appointments, such as medical and legal ones ……a huge problem.” And because not all supermarkets accept the card, some people have to walk long distances to get to a participating retailer. In desperation for actual money, people are forced to sell the card for a fraction of its value, ending up with less cash and no food. The Red Cross, states the card “does not allow refused asylum seekers to meet their basic needs and live with dignity. It creates unnecessary suffering for people who are already in desperate situations,” and is calling on the government to scrap the system.
Suspicion, detention, removal
If, after wading through the maze of applications and exhausting all options, asylum is refused, people are given 28 days to leave the country – voluntarily or be deported. Those who cannot return to their country of origin for ‘reasons beyond their control’ – e.g. it’s not safe for them to do so, are allowed to stay in the UK until the risk has diminished and it’s safe for them to go home.
Given the desire to limit the already small number of asylum seekers arriving and settling in Britain there is a political predisposition towards denial. A political strategy that both feeds off, and strengthens, an intolerant, misinformed nationalism amongst certain sections of the population. In the year ending March 2015, according to government figures, 12,498 failed asylum seekers were removed. The Home Office do not release the average time between a claim being refused and removal; it can be years. Some people are thrown into immigration detention centers prior to removal; prison-like complexes condemned by a range of bodies, including the All Party Parliamentary Group on Migration whose report recommends that these institutions are closed down immediately.
The majority of asylum seekers do not have travel documents, and the country of origin may well refuse to provide passports. Some nations, the BBC relate, “do not allow the forced return of individuals, or demand proofs of nationality that are almost impossible to meet.” Such bureaucratic obstacles make some people un-returnable, and trapped in a nationless no-man’s land of poverty and exclusion – no matter what decision is reached on their asylum claim.
The Home Office (H.O.) removes people on commercial flights or chartered planes. Between 2001 and 2014 “nearly 800 chartered flights” were booked, at huge cost, to return failed asylum seekers to their countries of origin. From the beginning of 2014 to June 2015 the H.O spent around £14 million on chartered flights, including, The Telegraph reports, “one plane at a cost of £250,000 to return just one Moroccan deportee”. During this 18-month period over 54 private jets were hired, carrying “an average of 53 passengers per flight…in one instance, just 11 Afghan illegal immigrants were sent home in one aircraft. On another occasion, a 265-seat plane was used to carry only 25 Nigerians.” This is government incompetenc
e bordering on madness.
In addition to flights for actual deportees, according to Home Office accounts, “the Government spent £1.58m [in 2014] on deportation flights which were booked before individuals were granted the right to appeal and were then cancelled.”
Forced removal is expensive; the most up to date figures are from 2005, when it cost £1,000 to deport someone who went voluntarily, but ten times that to enforce it. This is another reason why the government makes staying in Britain as uncomfortable as possible, so they will give up and leave of their own free will – thereby saving the state a tidy sum. And it is the motive behind a trial scheme to pay asylum seekers to leave.
At the root of the Conservative government’s approach to asylum seekers and immigration generally is distrust and suspicion. Following a consultation paper on support for failed asylum seekers, The Guardian reported that, Conservative “Ministers have said they want to take a more hardline approach to failed asylum seekers who have exhausted all of their appeal rights, as part of a drive to demonstrate to those trying to come to Britain that it is not “a land of milk and honey”.
Such insulting terminology, which is also blatantly false – asylum seekers cannot claim benefit, nor are they allowed to work – casts doubt over asylum seekers’ motives and distorts the public discourse over asylum, and immigration more broadly. Asylum seekers are men, women and children fleeing persecution, and have the right to be treated with dignity and compassion, not intolerance, as is so often the case.
Within the current economic system not only are individuals and companies competing against one another, but geographical regions, countries, states, even towns within states/counties, are battling it out. Every group is manipulating their particular ‘business environment’ – including their tax code – to entice the wealthy, lure big business and secure higher levels of ’inward investment’ than their neighbours; investment that is used to develop luxury homes, faceless shopping streets and designer health clubs. Establishing a fair and consistent tax structure in such an adversarial world seems unlikely, despite the public calls for ‘tighter controls’, closing down tax havens and ‘clamping down on tax dodgers’ by western politicians in the wake of Panama.
Injustice by Design
Based on money, the acquisition of material wealth and political power, the current economic model is set up to be undemocratic and is inherently unjust; and there cannot be peace where there is a lack of social justice. Injustice causes division, resentment and anger; division fuels conflict and mistrust, which inevitably results in violence.
It is a system designed by the rich and powerful to maintain control of society and to increase their hold on power, and as such clearly meets Aristotle’s definition of an Oligarchy (in Politics III): ‘rule by the few in their own interest.’ Wealth is now concentrated in the hands of a tiny number of people at unprecedented levels; as Noam Chomsky puts it in Requiem for the American Dream, ‘concentrations of wealth yields concentrations of power,’ which set in motion a spiral of increasing wealth for the few, leading to greater and greater levels of power, feeding even more wealth, and so on. This is evidenced by a report from Oxfam America, which shows that “from 2008 – 2014 the 50 largest US companies collectively received $27 in federal loans, loan guarantees and bailouts for every $1 they paid in federal taxes;” that these companies “spent approximately$2.6 billion on lobbying while receiving nearly $11.2 trillion in federal loans, loan guarantees and bailouts.” Meaning that for every $1 spent on lobbying congress and the President, these “50 companies collectively received $130 in tax breaks and more than $4,000 in federal loans, loan guarantees and bailouts.”
Economic policy is designed to serve the interests of the wealthy and keep the majority of the population poor or almost poor, certainly financially insecure and emotionally anxious, disempowered, marginalised and ignored. Democracy is a noble construct in a corrupt world; an ideal chanted by the rulers of mankind to present the illusion of progress and commonality, create hope for the marginalised masses, and add colour and dignity to the shadow play of corporate state politics.
Wealth and income inequality worldwide is greater than ever. According to Oxfam “the richest 1% have accumulated more wealth than the rest of the world put together. Meanwhile, the wealth owned by the bottom half of humanity has fallen by a trillion dollars in the past five years.” The charity goes on to relate that “just 62 individuals now have the same wealth as 3.6 billion people – half of humanity. This figure is down from 388 individuals as recently as 2010,” revealing that the fruits of the world are in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Within the current economic paradigm this is inevitable.
Some argue that inequality and the concentration of wealth is immaterial providing the majority of people are less poor – which in many countries, developing and developed, the US for example, where the Washington Post report, “the poor are still getting poorer”, is untrue. This view allows the rich to fill to overflowing; whilst the rest, who are expected to accept the unjust order with a grateful nod of thanks that at least we’re not starving anymore or living in a workhouse, struggle to pay rent, cannot send their children to university, afford health care, eat well, and are excluded from the world of culture, which is largely unaffordable. It also ignores the fact that not only is inequality morally indefensible, but it feeds a range of social ills from suicide to teenage pregnancy, community violence and mistrust, and drug/alcohol dependency, amongst other destructive issues. All of which are higher in the most unequal countries of the world: America and Britain, for example.
The economic system, call it neo-liberalism or as P. Sainath states, ‘market fundamentalism’, which “Reaganomics and Thatcherism fought many crusades for the new religion in the 1980s“, is designed to encourage selfishness, materialism and greed. And is, he says “inseparable from democracy. It is democracy”, or we could say, it both defines and denies democracy.
It is a model that feeds division, emphasises the trivial and creates the conditions in which corruption, manipulation of the ‘rules’, and dishonesty are inevitable – as the 11 million documents that surfaced from the offices of Mossack Fonseca reveal. Tax avoidance, by those who can afford the corrupt accountants, is but the crudest form of deceit and criminality employed by corporations and wealthy individuals. It costs developed nations $billions every year: the US alone loses an estimated $111 billion to corporate tax dodging, Oxfam reports, but studies show that the cost of tax avoidance impacts poor nations disproportionately. A report by Christian Aid in 2008 stated that $160 billion per year is lost, and states that, “illegal, trade-related tax evasion will likely be responsible for the death of 5.6 million children through 2000 to 2015.” The economic system that encourages such dishonesty, we could therefore say, is literally killing people as well as poisoning the planet.
Inherent human qualities, such as compassion, empathy and kindness are deliberately driven out of people, for such natural tendencies unite and connect individuals; from the perspective of the ruling elite, when people are united they become dangerous, i.e., they begin to demand some of the politically championed democratic principles, albeit universally ignored; participation, social justice and economic fairness/opportunity.
Market fundamentalism is purposely designed to be socially unjust and to perpetuate and intensify the status quo. This suppressive blanket has been purposely set up to strengthen certain human traits: it promotes the idea that mankind is born competitive and selfish, that greed and desire are part of the fabric of our being, and should be encouraged; and that self-interest flowing from the instinctive urge for self-preservation is by extension perfectly natural, and cannot be challenged, let alone changed. Life and mankind are defined in simplistic materialistic terms, which has enabled a system to be consciously constructed which maintains discontent amongst the majority by constantly agitating desire for material possessions and sensory gratification, and has led to competition and division being at the heart of many, if not all areas of life. The personality, self or ego, with all its conflicts and violent tendencies, is constantly fed, decisions are made from this noisy, contradictory, self-centred position, and inevitably disharmony follows, individually and collectively.
Such so-called ‘values’, which to many of us are not values at all, have created a largely hedonistic, deeply divided materialistic civilisation, in which the individual is all that matters; conformity is virtually insisted upon and individuality curtailed. It is a civilisation in crisis, with a dysfunctional economic system sitting at the poisonous heart of the manifold issues facing humanity; a civilisation in transition, from an out-dated unjust paradigm to, many of us believe, a new, fair and equitable model. Pragmatic creative ideas are increasing
ly being discussed, new ways of re-organising society that respond both to the collective need and the changes in working and living patterns – largely brought about by technology – show there is a way out of the present economic quagmire.
Many are responding to the mood of the time and calling for change. Strong is the resistance of the ruling elite and the reactionary, conservative forces, who cynically declare that there is no alternative to the existing economic model. As writer and thinker Benjamin Crème explains “the world is divided into two groups: those who are holding on to the old greedy and selfish nationalistic systems and who thus represent the reactionary forces of the world; and those…who are looking for a way of brotherhood and co-operation, a realization of the interdependence that results from the fact that we are one humanity.”
Cooperation: a sign of the times
Although it is held by devotees of market fundamentalism to be a driving force for innovation and ‘development’, competition, which is inherently divisive and denies humanity’s essential unity, is something to be overcome – replaced by cooperation. In an encouraging sign of the times, groups of people are increasingly coming together – whether it be regarding the environment, political campaigns or local community issues, and working cooperatively.
In last year’s Financing and Development talks the ‘group of 77 countries and China’, made clear their view, that “international cooperation [is required] to address the need to strengthen tax systems as well as gaps in areas such as illicit financial flows, capital flight and tax evasion, which undermine development efforts and can only be tackled collectively.” It is estimated that developing countries lose “$1 trillion a year in illicit financial flows, far more than they receive in aid,” which, The Guardian reports, “at its all-time high in 2013 was about $135 billion a year.” The call from G77 countries for ‘international cooperation’ and ‘a global intergovernmental tax body at the United Nations’ has been universally supported by civil society organisations, including Christian Aid, Oxfam and the Global Alliance for Tax Justice amongst others.
Cooperation is one of the keynotes of the time. Sharing, tolerance, understanding and, underlying all such perennial principles, unity, a recognition of the eternal oneness of humanity, are others. Such ideals should fashion the systems and institutions that govern our lives, specifically the economic system that needs to be re-designed to take the material anxiety out of living, by addressing – irrespective of financial circumstances – the basic needs of all people: food, shelter, health care and education, which, despite being enshrined as human rights (article 25 UNDHR), are currently only available to those who can afford them.
In a move that seems in keeping with the ideals of the time which recognises that everyone has a right to the essentials of life, as well as the potential large-scale change in employment resulting from the ability of robots to undertake many of the mundane, physical tasks that human beings have previously done, various countries in Europe as well as Ontario in Canada, where a pilot scheme is said to be imminent, are looking at a scheme of statutory state payments. The idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), paid to every citizen, whether in or out of work is under discussion in Switzerland (where a recent referendum voted against introducing it), Finland, Holland and Britain, where the Labour party are looking closely at it. The proposed Finnish scheme incorporates voluntary work components, recognising that collective action and social responsibility are necessary ingredients in any major shift in economic policy. Such responsibility grows out of and fosters the realisation of humanity’s essential unity.
A common-sense approach to the current unjust economic model, as suggested by Benjamin Crème, would be to make an inventory of what each nation produces as well as what every country requires to meet the needs of its population. Such data will make clear the produce of the world, as well as humanity’s collective requirements, enabling the natural resources, as well as the knowledge, skills and conveniences of modern life to be shared from this common pool as necessary; so that everyone, no matter their place of birth, is adequately fed and housed, has access to good health care and decent education. Such a straightforward worldwide framework, with sharing at its heart is a simple and just alternative to the existing model and would bring an end to food insecurity and acute poverty, neither of which should anymore be present in our world. Humanity is one; let unity in diversity be the anthem of the times, and let sharing be the principle that creates justice, engenders trust and facilitates peace.
There can be little doubt that we are living through an extraordinary, and in many ways unprecedented era. Times of uncertainty and tremendous upheaval for sure, but also positive times, in which large numbers of people are becoming energised and politically engaged. Political parties in many countries are fracturing, as internal differences surface and the old dualities of left and right fail to respond to the needs and demands of the people.
Political/social activism has been with us for centuries, but since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, ‘People Power’ – the ‘new superpower’ – has been growing exponentially. Huge numbers of people, angry and alienated, have been taking to the streets calling for fundamental political, economic, and social change.
The two major examples of the global movement for change have to be Occupy, and the Arab Spring. Both declared that freedom and social justice are fundamental human rights, that the current economic model is fundamentally unjust, that sharing needs to be seen as a guiding social and economic principle, and that the voice of the marginalised majority – so long ignored, must be listened to. In opposition to the relentless drive towards change sit the conservative, reactionary forces of society. Groups that dominate both the mainstream media and the political classes who, lacking vision and shrouded in complacency, turn to the past for answers to the manifold issues facing humanity and seek to maintain the status quo at all costs; a status quo that has served them and their supporters well, whilst consigning hundreds of millions to poverty or near poverty.
As politicians resist the calls for change, refuse to listen and continue to act in the same old divisive, unjust ways, frustration and anger in many countries, and amongst many groups, is increasing.
Anger is a negative motivator, it distorts reason and leads to irrational decisions and actions: electing Donald Trump – an anti-politician political figure – as the Republican presidential nominee, and 52% of people in Britain (in defiance of politicians, 75% of whom ticked the box marked ‘remain’), voting to leave the European Union (EU) are two examples of such angry collective choices. These are revealing decisions made by a similar demographic, based on some common issues: Immigration and a perverted sense of nationalism being the loudest ones. The misconception that ‘they’re’ taking over – immigrants that is – threatening our communities and national identity; fears stirred up by manipulative politicians and a dishonest right-wing media, that, instead of holding power to account, routinely campaigns on its behalf.
Underlying these reasons is the fact that large sections of humanity have been systematically disempowered. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide are sick of economic/social injustice and the extreme levels of wealth and income inequality and don’t trust the corrupt political system or out-of-touch politicians (just 16% of Britons trust politicians to tell the truth, and 19% in the US), who habitually act in their own best interests and the interests of their corporate backers. CNN makes clear that, “at the center of both the [EU] referendum and the U.S. presidential election is the idea that the political status quo is not working for voters and that elected leaders are either incompetent or not listening.”
Donald Trump, of course, has cleverly tapped into the suspicions of voters, putting distrust and disdain for politicians and their institutions at the heart of his campaign. Telling his supporters that the politicians are ‘dumb and don’t know what they’re doing’, nobody in political office is looking out for you he says, but hey, you can trust me – I’m one of you, and together we will “Make America Great Again”.
The causes of what we might call protest or rage voting are clear; the effects however are unforeseen, and far-reaching. While many in America may support his candidacy, the wider world tremors at the prospect of a ‘President Trump’, and in Britain political and social turmoil has erupted since the vote to leave the EU – Brexit as its been labelled. It is a fateful vote with consequences not just for Britain and Europe, CNN states, but also “for Western stability that could trigger economic and political reverberations in the United States.”
Deep divisions in the UK and within the main political parties have been brought to the confused, fragmented surface. The now ex-Prime Minister, David Cameron, an ardent ‘remainer’, was forced to resign, to be succeeded by Teresa May; Labour – the official opposition – has called a leadership contest and seems determined to tear itself to pieces; the leader of the Green Party has stepped down, and independence from the UK is being openly talked about in Scotland (again) and Northern Ireland.
The vote revealed social divisions, based on age (young versus old); regions (England and Wales voted out, Scotland and Northern Ireland in); well-educated and less well educated; affluent multi-racial metropolitan centres (where, ironically immigration is highest) – in vote, versus degenerating regional towns, out vote. Differences of outlook that the think tank Foreign Affairs states “may well play out in the United States and elsewhere, with important electoral effects.”
Then there are the countless practical effects of leaving the EU, all of which, despite the duplicitous rhetoric of the leave campaigners, are worryingly negative: From the impact on the economy, to funding for University research, holidays to food prices, European education opportunities and agricultural subsidies, employment rights and environmental issues, not to mention the UK’s standing in the World, and the shame felt by millions of us for this national demonstration of “pointless, bellicose imbecility,” as Ed Vulliamy, writing in the Guardian puts it.
Whilst referenda (or ‘direct democracy’) appear to be a democratic way of encouraging participation, unless the threshold agreed for a conclusive result is at a level that carries the vast majority, consensus is not realised and the views of millions of people remain ignored. The usual 51% (as applied in all first past the post elections) is simply not sufficient. Decisions passed with such a tiny majority will not be accepted by the large percentage of people who did not vote for them, any changes will be challenged and social divisions strengthened – as has happened in Britain over the EU vote. A majority of at least 80% should be the target.
True democracy is participation – responsible participation. Yes it means voting, but it also means voting based on the issues in an informed way. Fully aware of the consequences of the vote – unlike the British EU vote, which saw millions cast a vote that is not only against the national interest, but in many cases is also against their own local interest.
Unite and Act
At the same time as unleashing a tidal wave of uncertainty and despair, there are exciting positive repercussions of the British vote to leave the EU, which reflect the growing worldwide realignment of politics.
The political class has been shaken up and a national debate has been triggered. Proportional representation – the only fair electoral system – is once again being openly spoken of and there has been much talk of a re-shaping of political parties, with the potential for new groups emerging or existing parties splitting. And most significant of all, a range of grass-roots movements has sprung up, and large numbers of people (over 125,000 in three weeks) have joined the Labour Party, with most, but not all new members supporting the ‘left-wing’ incumbent leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
The key point to recognise is that globally, democratic participation has dramatically increased in the last thirty years. People in substantial numbers are uniting, forming grou
ps, organising and acting, recognising that the responsibility for society rests with them – with us, and that fundamental change will not come from the politicians. As Professor Robert Tombs of St. John’s College, Cambridge University puts it, “there is a sense that politics no longer matters or that the people who run mainline politics are no longer in contact with the people who vote for them.” This phenomenon is taking place throughout the world.
People everywhere see the inadequacy and dishonesty of partisan, ideologically driven politicians who are obsessed with gaining or holding on to power. Out of touch with vast swathes of the population, as well as the mood and energy of the times, rooted in the past they lack the imagination and courage required to initiate the far-reaching changes needed to tackle the major issues of the day: Climate change and peace; the movement of people – migration and refugees; obscene levels of inequality, the desperate need for a new and just economic system based on sharing, and the cultivation of social justice – which would create an environment of trust – essential if we are to build a society free from the conditions that lead to conflict.
There is a real possibility that a new form of politics will evolve out of the popular democratic movements springing up in many nations. A new politics free from ideology, that recognises humanity’s essential unity and is driven by a commitment to address the needs of the people and to build a new fair society, based on sharing, cooperation, tolerance and justice.
Despite the outward turmoil these are wonderful times: The impulse for change is sweeping through our world and people everywhere are responding; do what they will the politicians and ruling elite will be unable to counter the evolutionary forces. It is a question of when, not if, fundamental change will take place. It is a very good time for democracy and politics.
Food, like shelter and health care, is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a fundamental right of all people, irrespective of circumstances or income. And yet one in nine of the global population does not have enough to eat – despite the fact that there is enough food to feed everyone.
The fact that around 800 million people are literally starving to death in a world of plenty is a level of human injustice which beggars belief. Women and children are the worst affected. Woman, who in many countries are not allowed to own land, make up 60% of the global total; if they were given equal access to resources the World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that “the number of hungry in the world could be reduced by up to 150 million people.”
The causes of hunger are not complicated. While the rich indulge to excess, and fill to overflowing, people are allowed to die of hunger-related illnesses simply because they don’t have enough money to buy food. This needless human destruction is not simply unjust, it is atrociously immoral and should fill us all with shame. As a wise man has said, “my brothers how can you watch these people die before your eyes and call yourselves men.”
The Poorest of the Poor
People starve and live with ‘food insecurity’ for one fundamental reason – poverty.
Poverty is not simply defined by a lack of income, but virtually all other types of poverty, including poor health care, poor education, poor nutrition, as well as the more psychological effects – poor self-esteem, personal shame and embarrassment – flow from this basic underlying, and decidedly crude form of poverty. And whilst poverty affects everyone no matter age, the impact on children is devastating, making them vulnerable to all manner of exploitation, threatening their safety, rights, health and education.
In developing countries, according to UNICEF, “more than 30% of children – about 600 million – live on less than US $1 a day [The World Bank poverty line is $1.90 A DAY].” Poor nutrition causes nearly half (45%) of deaths in children under five – 3.1 million children each year, 90% of whom are the victims of long-term malnourishment – rather than emergency famine. And for those who survive early childhood, hunger leaves a lifelong legacy of cognitive and physical impairment.
Although the vast majority (98%) of those living with acute food insecurity are found in ‘developing’ – i.e. poor, countries – perhaps surprisingly an additional 50 million people or so (14% of the population) are in America – supposedly the world’s richest nation, but significantly also the country with the highest levels of wealth and income inequality in the world.
Sub-Saharan Africa (where 25% of children are malnourished) accounts for 214 million people living with food insecurity, but the greatest concentration of starving human beings (525 million), according to figures from The Hunger Project, lives in Asia. Inevitably, given its population (1.3 billion), the largest proportion is in India (over 200 million), where the causes of hunger are pretty much the same as everywhere else in the world: High levels of poverty, inequality, rising food costs, inflation and poor governance. We could add to this list: lack of sharing, or distribution of foodstuffs to those in need, and crucially ending food waste. According to the United Nations Development Programme, “up to 40% of the food produced in India is wasted,” 21 million tonnes of wheat alone.
India ranks 80th out of 104 countries in the Global Hunger Index and is home to a third of the world’s poor and hungry. Approximately one in three Indian children are malnourished, and some 3,000 die every day from diet-related illnesses. This in what is regularly hailed as the world’s fastest growing economy, where according to Forbes, 111 billionaires and almost 200,000 millionaires live. The same absurdity – of extraordinary insular wealth, excess and greed alongside desperate poverty and crippling suffering – is repeated globally. Oxfam states that the annual “income of the world’s richest 100 people is enough to end global poverty four times over” – worldwide there are 1,826 billionaires, with a combined wealth in excess of $7 trillions.
Starving in a world of plenty
Worldwide hunger is not the result of population or lack of food; as Oxfam states “it’s about power, and its roots lie in inequalities in access to resources and opportunities,” as well as financial inequality and the economic injustice that feeds poverty. There is roughly the same number of overweight or obese people in the world as the number suffering from hunger. This highlights what many see as one of the underlying causes of hunger: grotesque levels of inequality, within nations and between countries.
Inequality results from a fundamentally corrupt economic system; in fact it is inherent in the system itself. A system on its deathbed that has labelled everything a commodity – including food, shelter, health care, education – to be profited from until exhausted – and everyone a consumer to be exploited into penury then discarded. It is a system that drives compassion and the natural human qualities of sharing and empathy into the shadows; it devalues community and champions individual success no matter the cost to other people or the environment. It says you can feed yourself and your family only if you have money to do so; if not we will sit in comfort and complacency and watch you and your children die.
The chasm between the rich and the rest is greater today than ever. The statistics are staggering. Currently the richest 85 people in the world are worth more than the poorest 3.5 billion; the lower half of the global population possesses just 1% of global wealth, while the richest 10% own 86% of all wealth: “the top 1% account for 46% of the total”! And unless the current trend of rising inequality is checked, Oxfam forecasts that, “the combined wealth of the richest 1 percent will overtake that of the other 99 percent of people next year.”
To redress the growing division between the grossly rich and the desperately poor the charity is calling for what they describe as a Global New Deal, in order to “reverse decades of increasing inequality”. It consists in a radical programme to deal with everything from closing tax havens, which “hold as much as $32 trillion or a third of all global wealth,” to dealing with weak employment laws and investing – not cutting public services.
It is time, Oxfam states, that “our leaders reformed the system so that it works in the interests of the whole of humanity rather than a global elite.” This means designing a just model with sharing at its heart so that the resources of the world, including food and water, are shared equitably amongst the people of the world.
Creative Solutions to End Hunger and Food Waste
There are various basic measures that have been shown to cut hunger sharply: Encouraging and investing in smallholder farmers (instead of selling off their land to multi-national corporations), particularly women. WFP findings show that high rates of hunger are strongly linked to gender inequalities. “When women are supported, whether as farmers or as food providers, families eat,” and when mothers receive education on good feeding techniques and getting the right nutrients, child malnutrition is reduced; Providing school meals – this has a combined effect: it addresses hunger as well as keeping children in school, and so helps families break the cycle of poverty that leads to hunger.
Technology also has a part to play. The WFP reports that, “in Syria, the refugees from Iraq get a voucher on a cell phone to spend in a local store. The storekeepers love it. The farmers love it. It saves money.” A brilliant scheme that does away with money, as does ‘Food for Assets’, a project that offers food in payment
for work to poor, hungry communities, including smallholder farmers. Add to this list raising the minimum wage of the lowest paid workers and importantly, ending food wastage.
Globally around a third of all food produced (1.3 billion tonnes) is wasted; in America the figure jumps to half. In addition to wasting food, all the resources needed to grow and distribute it are also squandered, the key ones being energy and, crucially, water: the UN informs us that, “250 km3 of water is wasted in growing these [wasted] crops, an amount that would meet all the world’s water needs.” Complacency amongst those of us in the West where there is an abundance of food is a major factor: with masses of food in the shops we don’t need to be careful with it, is the common attitude.
There are a number of common-sense recommendations for reducing food wastage, all are easy to implement: Invest in food storage technology, so that food keeps for longer; force supermarkets to stock and sell imperfect vegetables (meaning naturally, not corporately shaped) at lower prices; donate food to those in need and revise the over-zealous sell-by-dates. Redistributing – sharing unwanted food rather than wasting it – would help eliminate hunger. Duncan Green, Oxfam UK’s senior strategic adviser states in The Guardian that on some estimates, “stopping the waste of food after harvest due to poor storage or transport infrastructure, and then in our own kitchens, could free up half of all food grown.”
An Economy Based on Sharing
Over and above these positive steps, which would all contribute to reducing hunger, ending hunger totally is inextricably linked to abolishing the extreme levels of poverty that half the planet lives with.
This requires a creative re-appraisal of the economic system and a collective will to bring about real and lasting change. The current heartless market driven structure, makes no concession to need and is conditioned totally by money; as the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation states “even when enough [food] is produced…there is no guarantee that a market economy will generate a distribution of income that provides enough for all to purchase the food needed.”
The fact that food is burnt, or left for rats to feast on, because it’s cheaper to destroy the produce than distribute it to those in need reveals the inhumane nature of the economic rules that fuel such shameful neglect. Sharing, imaginatively utilised, is the fundamental and common-sense element that would end hunger and acute poverty, and quickly. The fact “that hunger exists at all shows the urgency of redistributing income and assets to achieve a fairer world,” says Duncan Green. “That redistribution has not already taken place is truly something to be ashamed of.”
It is time to design an economic system that allows for the required sharing of food, water, land and other natural resources, as well as knowledge, skills etc. A just, humane model as advocated by the Brandt Commission (report North-South: A Programme for Survival) that honors our collective commitment to Article 25 of the UNDHR and holds, as its primary aim, the meeting of humanity’s basic needs – food, shelter, health care and education. And is not driven by corporate profit, greed and the obscene accumulation of personal wealth, which is fuelling inequality and causing the premature deaths of hundreds of millions of the poorest, most vulnerable people in the world.
As a world community we have agreed that everyone has a right to a home, (article 25 of the UNDHR makes this clear), however, like many such ‘rights’ – food, adequate health care, good education for example, the ‘right’ to a home is dependent upon your ability to pay for that right.
Having spent almost two years sleeping on sofas, sharing beds and moving from one friends’ home to another, on Tuesday November 10th, Vera, an asylum seeker to the UK, and her three teenage children were made street homeless.
After waiting all day in Lambeth Council, South East London – where they were met with cold indifference by an insensitive social worker, at 9pm they were offered a room in a hostel – ‘for one night only’. This tortuous process of uncertainty was repeated for a week, when they were finally offered temporary accommodation, ‘while their circumstances are being assessed’. Temporary accommodation in Vera’s case consists of one room, a communal kitchen and bathroom in a tatty bed and breakfast over an hour away from the children’s school.
This family’s experience is far from uncommon in Britain, 2015; there are 65,000 households (anything between 200,00 and 300,000 people) living under similarly insecure circumstances, which is the highest number since 2008. During the first three months of this year a staggering ‘13,520 households’ [40,000 – 55,000 individuals] were accepted as homeless across England.
In London, where homelessness is most acute, 2,775 people were recorded as sleeping rough Between April – June 2015 ; over three quarters of whom reported one or other ‘support need’ – that’s alcohol/drug use or mental health problems, while over a third had been in prison. Between 2010, when the Conservative Liberal Democrat coalition came to power and 2014 the number of people sleeping rough increased by 79%.
Astronomical rents, cuts to housing benefit and a grave shortage of council housing are largely blamed for the crisis, particularly in London. And whilst these are indeed key factors driving the current situation, it is, it seems an inevitable consequence of a socio-economic system that sees everything as a commodity, to be traded and profited from. Within such a paradigm supply and demand rules the day – the greater the demand, the higher the costs – rents or prices of properties to buy.
Exploitative greedy landlords set rents as high as possible, and councils, whose budgets have been slashed under crippling economic austerity, don’t have funds to build public housing – which is what is desperately needed. In fact far from building, local authority housing stock is being sold to investors, as well as tenants, who all too often sell as soon as they can, in order to make money.
Cash strapped councils, as well as the NHS and the Metropolitan Police are being actively encouraged to sell off land as well and property – particularly along The Thames, to high-end developers, on the promise, The Guardian reports, “that they will build some affordable housing further away”.
London has a population of 8.5 million (13% of the UK total), and at the present rate of growth (1.5%) by 2030 the number of people crowding the capital’s streets could reach 10 million.
Like many major urban centers the city has a severe housing problem; there are not enough properties, it’s impossible to find council accommodation and the market prices, whether buying or renting, are way beyond the means of the majority. The average cost of buying a flat in the capital last year was £463,000 ($695,000); a terraced house (two bedrooms), depending where it is, would set you back around £600,000 ($901,000), and a Georgian family house in the leafy borough of Kensington & Chelsea will demand millions.
Prices in the rental sector are no less shocking and over a third of properties are sub-standard. The average price for a tiny one-bedroom flat is now £1,500 ($2300) per month, if you need two bedrooms you’ll pay up to and beyond £2,000 ($3100) per month. And in order to be granted the privilege of renting a home, you will have to pay six weeks deposit, a month’s rent in advance and show that you earn three times the annual rent. For a flat costing £1,200 pcm, this means a yearly income of £36,000 (the average salary in Britain is £26,500), which is more than a teacher or nurse earns, let alone a cleaner or waiter. Young people – under 25 year olds, cannot afford anything and are forced to either share or, and this is increasingly the norm, stay with their parents.
Local authorities provide housing benefit (HB) to those who cannot afford their rent. But under the government’s welfare ‘reforms’ HB has been capped, and whilst it is clearly crazy to spend £24.6 billion ($38 billion) on HB (2013 – 2014 figures), it is wrong to punish tenants, who have no control over the extortionate rents being charged. Rents need to be ‘capped’, not HB, long-term protected leases (five years minimum) introduced, with rents tied to inflation. Much of this existed pre-1988, when Margaret Thatcher as PM withdraw tenant’s safeguards, and introduced short – six month – Assured tenancies: and low and behold the main reason cited for becoming homeless today, is a shorthold tenancy coming to an end.
Homelessness in London is spilling out into the surrounding counties, as London councils, unable to afford the local rents, export homeless people and pay private landlords to house them. Landlords outside London are delighted by the higher rents they can charge, and lap up the cash incentives (between “£1,000 to £6,000 – paid on top of rent and ordinary deposits”, The Guardian states) paid by hard up councils.
Shipping people out of the city does northing to solve the underlying problems: on the contrary, local rents continue to increase, and fertile conditions for the problem to repeat itself in the city suburbs and beyond are created. In fact, homeless people are being sent, not just to the edge of London, but to towns and cities miles from the capital.
Exclude and Criminalize the Destitute, the Poor and Undeserving.
The infringement of rights suffered by homeless people has been led by private companies and corporations, who use security guards and ‘defensive architecture’ to deter homeless people, as well as “teenagers, the poor and those who are marginalized or don’t have good social representation”, says Selena Savic, editor of Unpleasant Design.
Anti-homeless spikes, and anti-homeless benches are popular weapons of the corporate clan. Seats designed for discomfort, like
the small sloping ones now found in bus stops, the wooden benches in parks with armrests at each seat, and the Camden bench (named after the local authority that commissioned it), with its ‘graffiti-resistant’ sloping surface designed to deter both sleeping and skateboarding. Stainless steel and concrete spikes are laid outside supermarkets and apartment buildings, under bridges and on public platforms.
‘Defensive architecture’ is far from passive and protective; it is overtly hostile, declaring that people, particularly those in need of a place to rest, are unwelcome.
The growing corporate ownership and resulting commercialization of public spaces allows for increasing levels of control of communal environments, making it possible for private companies to exclude certain types of people they deem ‘unsuitable’. Usually those who cannot buy their products, invest in their business, eat at their tables etc.
Destitute people with nowhere to go, and no money to spend are duly labeled ‘undesirable’ and told to stay away – ‘we don’t care where you go, just go away’– is the message, sharp and aggressive.
It is a message that fits snuggly within the Neo-Liberal Globalisation project and the homogenization of our world. The erosion of local culture and diversity, together with the gentrification of large urban areas, is part of this global movement, and is going on apace. Independent businesses, shops, cafes, art galleries and so on are being driven out of central and sought after areas of the capital, to be replaced by national and international corporate brands, creating bland streets that drain every drop of colour, contrast and individuality from an area.
Rents are inflated, those who cannot pay are driven out, and in flow the 4 x 4’s, the dog walkers, nannies and overpriced deli’s: and another ghetto for the rich is created. If this continues in London, the city will mirror Paris, and Labour MP David Lammy warns, the capital will have “an outer suburb that is increasingly poor, overcrowded, depressed and an inner London, particularly around the Thames, that becomes a sanctum of the absolute super rich”.
The Wrong Tone
Concerned with image, tourism and attracting ‘inward investment’ London boroughs are not keen on rough sleepers either; homeless people on the streets set the wrong tone – they sully the reputation of the area and are increasingly unwelcome.
Worryingly, this message has been enshrined in law in the London Borough of Hackney – historically a rough, working class area, where on 13th April, using new powers under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) was established which made rough sleeping in parts of the borough a criminal offense. The punishment for breaking the ‘Protection Order’ is a fine of up to £1,000 – for someone who has nothing: no home, few possessions, little if any income, and perhaps a fragmented, negative sense of self.
Such a retrograde measure does nothing to stop people sleeping rough; they are simply forced to move somewhere else, in all likelihood somewhere far away from essential support services (food and so on) that they rely on for day-to-day survival. It casts a shadow of guilt over homeless people and further isolates them from society.
Whether someone is destitute because they are an asylum seeker waiting for Home Office support, a divorced man who cannot cover his rent, someone with alcohol or drug concerns, or a young woman out of work, without savings, homelessness is not a crime. It is not something to be ashamed of, nor is it ‘anti-social behaviour’: it is the dreadful consequence of life circumstances and a socio-economic system based on money and false values that lacks compassion. For those who find themselves in dire need, what is needed is support, understanding and practical help to find accommodation and begin to re-build their lives.
Fleeing war, persecution and acute poverty, men, women and children have been arriving in Britain for generations. They come in search of peace: for work or education, and to build a decent life in a country were the rule of law is observed and human rights are respected.
Currently the largest numbers, according to Mary Bosworth, (author of Inside Immigration Detention), arrive from the sub-continent: India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. They also come from Nigeria and Jamaica, and from current and recent war zones: Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. Many of those making the hazardous journey have been the victim of violence, sexual abuse and exploitation; some have mental health issues, all need to be shown tolerance, compassion and understanding. However, a significant number arriving in the UK are being incarcerated in the country’s ten ‘Immigration Detention Centres’ (IDCs).
The UK government locks up more immigrants than any other country in Europe, and ‘detains’ them for longer. This crude unimaginative approach to what is a humanitarian issue, not a criminal matter, is detrimental to the health of those detained, extremely expensive – costing the Home Office up to £70,000 a year per person – and socially divisive. It also contravenes the UN Refugee Convention (Art. 31), which makes clearthat “states should not impose penalties or unnecessary restrictions on movements of refugees entering their territory without authorization.” Violating this and other binding regulations has forced governments “to pay out millions of dollars in compensation for their unlawful detention practices,” UNHCR state.
Concerned NGOs and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) condemn the UK’s detention policy, UNHCR making clear that “seeking asylum is a … fundamental human right. In our view the detention of asylum-seekers should be avoided – these are people who are seeking protection.” Vulnerable people in need of support not incarceration, as is made clear in a recent All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) report, one highly critical of UK government policy.
The panel of MPs and Peers concluded:
The UK uses detention disproportionately and inappropriately. The evidence shows that the current system is seriously detrimental to the individuals who are detained in terms of their mental and physical well-being.
Attempted suicide and self-harming is widespread: one detainee told the inquiry that “some lose hope and they try to kill themselves. Some try burning themselves with whatever they can get. Some try hanging themselves in the shower. They think it’s the only way out…they do not kill you directly, but instead you kill yourself.”
Detention is particularly distressing for women, many of whom (72% according to Refugee Women), had been raped ‘as part of the persecution they were fleeing’. Incarcerating survivors of rape and sexual violence contravenes UNHCR guidelines on detention, which state that: “Victims of torture and other serious physical, psychological or sexual violence also need special attention and should generally not be detained.” In a recent report on Yarls Wood detention Centre, described by the Chief Inspector of Prisons (IOP) as a place of ‘national concern’, almost half the female detainees said they felt ‘unsafe’ and a similar number of those arriving felt suicidal and depressed. The IOP report follows a study by Women for Women Refugees into conditions at Yarls Wood, which recorded dozens of allegations of ‘sexual contact’ and intimidating behaviour by male staff on women detainees. Women told of male security officers watching “them in intimate situations such as while naked, partly dressed, in the shower or on the toilet,” as well as when being searched by female staff members.
Prison In All But Name
IDCs are either converted high security prisons or have been built to the same specifications; they are often run by ex-prison Governors, and private security firms or the Prison Service, administer them. And whilst the Government says IDCs are not prisons and detainees are not prisoners, the Chief Inspector of Prisons asserts that detention “is imprisonment” – freedom of movement is extremely limited, detainees are locked in their rooms or wing at night and ‘released’ in the morning. They live under a cloud of uncertainty, not knowing when they will be released or where they will be ‘allowed’ to live.
People are detained for a variety of reasons: many are asylum-seekers; some are waiting to hear if they will be accepted as refugees. Others “have lived in the UK legally for many years or decades,” Detention Action says, “and can no longer prove their original nationality.” Some are ‘stateless’ – unwelcome in Britain, they cannot return home because it’s too dangerous, for example “people from Zimbabwe and much of Iraq and Somalia”. But instead of allowing them to live peacefully within the community and contribute to society, “many people are detained indefinitely”.
A Last Resort
Of the 3,462 people incarcerated at the end of last year (up 24% on the previous year), almost 400, The Independent relates had “been detained for more than six months, while more than 100 had been locked up for longer than a year.” Home Office statistics show that “at any one time, between 210 and 260 people in detention have been held for over a year”. During their own investigations, the APPG spoke to a man who had been “locked up in limbo” for three long uncertain years!
Contrary to the “enforcement-focused culture” existent within the Home Office, the APPG report (echoing UNHCR) states that, “depriving an individual of their liberty for the purposes of immigration control should be an absolute last resort, should be comparatively rare, and should only take place for the shortest possible time.” However, far from being ‘rare’ and a ‘last resort’, the UK, detains “far too many people unnecessarily and for far too long.”
The lack of an upper limit on detention is a major criticism leveled at the Government by all those working in the sector, as well as the Parliamentary Group, which strongly recommends that the maximum time anyone can be held in “immigration detention” be set at “28 days”. It is made possible by the fact that the UK Government, unlike all its EU partners, has not signed up to the European Returns Directive (ERD) of 2008, which establishes, as EU Law Analysis relates, “an obligation to return irregular migrants, their treatment during expulsion proceedings, entry bans, procedural rights and the grounds and conditions for detention.”
signing the ERD enables the government, in theory at least, to detain people indefinitely, makes offering planned support and personal care inside IDCs problematic and crucially creates intense uncertainty amongst fragile people already in an extremely insecure situation. The APPG was shocked by statements from people suffering from anxiety and depression, and found that the “current Home Office policy puts the health of detainees at serious risk.” It is a degrading policy that must be changed, urgently and fundamentally: the IDCs closed down and a humane, just process established.
In 2014 a total of 30,365 people were detained in the UK of which 11,354 were released into the community, either permanently or temporarily, the remainder being returned to their country of origin.
There is no reason to use incarceration when resolving someone’s immigration status. It does not deter irregular migration, makes it harder for asylum-seekers who are eventually accepted to adapt to their new home, and can, UNHCR relates, “increase resistance towards voluntary return among those who cannot stay.” It is an expensive, heavy-handed method that criminalises and intimidates people seeking asylum, and, as The Refugee Council chief executive, Maurice Wren, has said is “an affront to the values of liberty and compassion that we proudly regard as the cornerstones of our [UK] democracy.”
Following a major conference in May 2015, UNHCR and NGO’s such as the International Detention Coalition (IDC), are urging nation states like the UK, whose current method is deplorable – and may well be illegal – to adopt a raft of alternative common-sense methods. These include: offering individual assessment and case management, providing good legal provision, and placing people within the community (less than 10% of asylum-seekers and others abscond when they are supervised in the community, according to UNHCR).
Immigration in the UK, as in many countries, has become a major political issue, one that is all too often misrepresented and distorted for electoral gain. The current right-wing Conservative government is pursuing a policy of exclusion towards people seeking asylum, and is generally un-welcoming and isolationist. Take the Syrian refugee crisis, for example. Of the 200,000 plus Syrians who have sought asylum in Europe (over four million have fled the country in total) since the civil war broke out in March 2011, the UK, historically compassionate and welcoming, has offered refuge to 216 people! This is utterly shameful!
In 2014 the UK received 31,300 asylum seekers, a small number compared to other European countries: according to UNHCR figures, Germany, with “173,100 was the largest recipient of new asylum claims”, followed by Sweden, 75,100, and Italy, 63,700.
Seeking asylum anywhere in the world is a human right (Art 14 UDHR), not a crime: people fleeing persecution need support not imprisonment, understanding not intolerance. But caught in the dehumanizing political immigration net that exists in the UK, and indeed elsewhere, they are no longer regarded as human beings. They have become ‘un-people’ – ‘migrants’. An impersonal label that hides individual tragedies, triggers intolerance, prejudice and fear, and allows Governments like the Conservatives to criminalise and ‘imprison’ innocent people, whose only crime is to be in need of a home.
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We all want peace, don’t we? Peaceful relationships and communities; an absence of violence and conflict: a World at Peace. This is surely everyone’s heartfelt desire. Without peace nothing can be achieved, none of the subtler essential needs of our time, such as feeding everyone and providing good quality health care and education to all – let alone the urgent need to save our planet (S.O.P.), beautify the cities and develop sustainable alternative energy sources.
Despite the fact that we all hanker after peace, there are currently around thirty armed conflicts taking place across the globe – wars in which many hundreds or many thousands of innocent people are being killed. They are not on the whole conflicts between one country and another, not directly anyway, although some may be. Ideology fuels much of the fighting, as well as popular armed resistance to corporate state power, state terrorism and repression. It’s worth saying at this point, that in addition to armed conflict the ‘war’ on independent ‘free’ thinking, true democracy and the freedom of the individual is a constant one. Brutal and unrelenting, it is fought by the ‘Masters of Mankind’ (Adam Smith’s famous term for the ruling elite) against the rest of us, the 99%.
War, and armed conflict more broadly, comes about when the conditions for such are present. Remove the causes of conflict – which, we accept, may be intricate– and, logic dictates, peace will come about. Alternatively, manipulate the conditions, distort and pervert information, create fear and suspicion and engineer conflict. Does the current socio-economic paradigm (let’s call it market fundamentalism) encourage the conditions for violent conflict and social tensions, or negate the causes of such conflict?
The Business of War
In order to engage in wars that supposedly nobody wants, weapons are developed, manufactured, energetically sold (often by heads of state on corporate trade missions) and eagerly bought. The jets and tanks, guns and drones are used to destroy and kill – – ‘the enemy’, ‘terrorists’ and those who dissent and agitate – increasingly regarded by governments as the same thing. They are used to create an atmosphere of fear in which control of the people becomes easier. These murderous gadgets add prestige and status to those states that can afford them, and show the world that they are growing’, – ‘developing’, and should be taken seriously.
In democracies the state can no longer use weapons to suppress the people and curtail independence. Here thinking is controlled using the bodies of mass propaganda – advertising, the media, consumerism, and education amongst other national armaments.
Making weapons and associated paraphernalia is big business, perhaps the biggest. In 2014 worldwide expenditure on arms, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), was US $1.7 something Trillions (about 3% of global GDP). America is responsible for around 70% of worldwide arms sales and spends as much on the machinery of war as the rest of the developed world combined – US $610 billions (SIPRI 2014).
Why would a government spend 16% of the total US federal budget, on killing machines and supporting technology if it were working for, and wanted peace, or was concerned about addressing social injustice and poverty? After all there are estimated to be around 50 million (15%) Americans living in poverty, people, who, one would imagine, would benefit from some of these funds being pushed their way.
It is a country run by an Oligarchy dominated by Neoliberalism: it has the highest level of Income and wealth inequality of all the industrialised nations (which feeds all manner of social ills from mistrust to homicide); and; whilst its leaders self-righteously talk of peace, democracy and human rights on the world stage, it is said that since the end of World War II, America has launched the overwhelming majority of military operations in the world. In fact according to Scientists Citizens (referring to an article in the American Journal of Public Health), it is responsible for a staggering 201, of the 248, armed conflicts that occurred up to 2001. The renowned American documentary film-maker, Michael Moore, whose latest project ‘Where to Invade Next’ focuses on America’s warring obsession, says, there’s “this constant need it seems to always have an enemy – where’s the next enemy so we can keep this whole military industrial complex alive, and keep the companies that make a lot of money from this in business.”
The desire for peace, that we all supposedly want, runs contrary to the drive for arms sales, and the primary imperative of neo-liberalism – profit and the constant increase of a nation’s GDP figures. Nation states build armies and develop weapons in order to fight wars – to achieve what? Peace, or the extension and domination of an ideology, the raping and pillaging of another country, the justification and growth of an industry? In Capitalism A Ghost Story, Arundhati Roy asks, “do we need weapons to fight wars? Or do we need wars to create markets for weapons? ”
Ambition versus Peace
The current socio-economic system of ‘market fundamentalism’ as Indian writer P. Sainath describes it, is the suffocating paradigm of contemporary civilisation under which all of us live. It has infiltrated every area of living, has caused worldwide inequality on unprecedented levels, reduced everything, and everyone to a commodity, sees all people as consumers, all places as markets and is the poisonous hand behind the global environmental catastrophe.
Is it a model for peace? Does it facilitate peaceful co-existence and social harmony? Indeed, are such ideals even relevant within a system that is content to allow men, women and children to die of hunger in their thousands simply because they are desperately poor; where the quality of health care and education someone receives is dependent on the size of their bank balance. Financial profit is the motive driving all action flowing from its pernicious core, and all means are justified by this greedy, short sighted, short term, end.
It is the shiny, noisy face of a materialistic ideology, which dominates all areas of life, and promotes a particular set of values. False values, many of us believe, that are causing a range of destructive unhealthy, social and environmental effects.
The crudest most basic aspects of human nature are emphasised: selfishness, nationalism, individual success and personal fulfilment are all fiercely encouraged, excess championed. Divisive goals tightly knitted together and relentlessly fed by desire, which sits at the agitated centre of the whole structure; a house of cards that would collapse without the constant itch of insatiability and perpetual discontent. And can peace exist where there is discontent?
Ambition (personal and national) together with the competitive spirit is almost mandatory within the confines of such a conditioned space, and as the Indian thinker J. Krishnamurti said, an ambitious man (or woman) “is not a peaceful man, though he may talk of peace and brotherhood”. He was equally damning of competition, saying, “there can be no peace, no enduring happiness for man as long as we– the individual, the group and the nation – accept this competitive existence as inevitable. Competitiveness, ambition, implies conflict within and without”. Ideas shared by Albert Einstein, who maintained that the competitive spirit destroys “all feelings of human fraternity and cooperation”.
Injustice is inherent in the system – of income, wealth, influence and opportunity. It strengthens social divisions, causing tensions, both seen and suppressed and conflict within and without; facilitates concentrations of power and control and its opposite – marginalisation, exclusion and vulnerability, leading to exploitation and abuse. Is peace possible along such perverted lines of living?
War comes about when the conditions that create conflict are present. Ideologies of all kinds, together with the divisive, selfish values that Neoliberalism promotes, encourage such conditions. Given the nature of these ideas and the range of self-interests that support them, it is hard to see how the current system can do anything other than facilitate social conflict and perpetuate war – ‘infinite war’, which Michael Moore maintains is the calculated intention, certainly of the American government.
A range of inherent tendencies exist within us all, many good, some not so positive – violence is one, tribalism and anger others. And yes, there is violence and conflict in our communities because human beings are themselves violent. But the environment in which we live can either facilitate the good, or agitate the destructive elements in human nature. With its inherent injustice, and values encouraging materiality, selfishness, nationalism and desire, the current system feeds and strengthens the negative.
Peace will come about when there is social justice, contentment and trust. All of which are the enemies of the ruling elite. All of which must be repeatedly and relentlessly called for.
Cooperation, tolerance and, crucially, sharing the worlds resources equitably amongst the people of the world, these would go a long way towards establishing social justice and trust, which in turn would help facilitate peace. Such perennial principles of goodness need to sit at the heart of a radically reformed socio-economic model, and in place of the existing divisive ideals, true values inculcated that unite people and evoke the good.