The chair of campaign group Waltham Forest Migrant Action, Douglas Saltmarshe, makes an appeal for kindness
The death of 39 people locked in a lorry in an Essex port is a desperate matter that highlights the extreme peril to which people seeking asylum, safety or economic security are exposed in their negotiation of national borders.
Events such as these are happening because of the failure of governments to humanely and properly address the pressures of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Barriers to safety, be they walls or bureaucracy, provide gangs and traffickers with opportunities for exploitation – the consequence is tragedies such as the one at Grays in October.
People move because they have to; very few want to leave their home and roots. People flee from conflicts, repressive regimes, discrimination and the consequences of climate change. It is the duty of governments to organise a safe and fair means by which migrants can enter a country and, having done so, ensure these people are treated in a decent and humane manner.
In recent years the UK government has systematically developed a so-called ‘hostile environment’ policy, resulting in migrants having to prove their status not just when they enter the country but whenever they rent a room, open a bank account, or access health services.
The hostile environment is designed to deter anyone wishing to come here and also encourage migrants to leave by making their lives in Britain more difficult. The system is underpinned by large numbers of forced removals, often brutally conducted, many of which we know nothing about. This situation, along with the consequences of economic austerity and reduction in legal aid, forms the background to the activities of our campaign group, Waltham Forest Migrant Action (WFMA).
At our weekly drop-in centre in Walthamstow every Friday, almost two-thirds of visitors are women – and most of them have children. Of particular concern is the denial of free school meals to children whose parents are deemed by the government to have “no recourse to public funds”. They need advice in negotiating the welfare system, filling out forms, and dealing with housing and immigration. We also refer some people to local foodbanks.
Last year, we saw visitors from 47 different countries. We have seen a steady normalisation of abusive standards towards those who seek to enter the country for legitimate reasons, such as asylum, family unification, and work. Remember that the NHS is only able to continue thanks to recruiting staff from across the world.
Another major concern of WFMA is Brexit. There are storm clouds whichever direction we head in; if we leave the European Union (EU) under a hard-right government, we can only expect a tightening of legislation against migrants and the introduction of a discriminatory points-based immigration system; if we end up remaining in the EU, we have to expect an upsurge of dark forces emanating from the far right. Such groups are already focusing their attentions on incomers, to an even greater extent than they did in 2016.
What is clear is that liberal values are crumbling in many places across the world. To counteract the powerful anti-liberal forces in Britain, we need to champion the values that are important to us and by which we consent to be governed. Politicians have failed us miserably and continue to do so.
Yet we must look at the positives. For example, MPs are signing up to the Global Justice Now pledge not to report migrants to the Home Office; while the campaign Docs Not Cops encourages the NHS to ask patients “how are you?” not “who are you?”. There’s also cause for optimism when we look at the way people interact on a daily basis. In Waltham Forest we are blessed by being part of a mosaic of cultures that offer diverse forms of welcome to outsiders and those in need – there are at least six foodbanks in the borough and welfare and legal counselling is made freely available.
Nevertheless, without an increase in state resources to reduce this dependency, the outlook is bleak.
For more information about Waltham Forest Migrant Action: