Campaigners against the government’s increasingly hardline refugee agenda say that resistance must go beyond opposition to immediate legislation and must tackle racism in politics and society more broadly.
With the Nationality and Borders Bill moving through Parliament and the recent announcement of Priti Patel’s signing of a £120mn deal with the government of Rwanda to offshore asylum seekers from the UK, more and more people are asking what they can do to resist.
It was that question that drew over 100 people to the Fountain Steps this afternoon (April 23) to say “Not in My Name,” the chosen theme for a rally hosted by Bristol Defend Asylum Seekers Campaign (BDASC).
The Borders Bill and the Rwanda plan, branded ‘cruel and nasty’ by the Refugee Council, has sparked protests and petitions, which follow months of protests against the Borders Bill including three in Bristol which have all attracted large crowds.
However, there is a growing weariness amongst protesters that efforts to oppose the Bill are achieving nothing. With a majority of MPs in Parliament, the Conservative government can pass legislation despite opposition. Just this week, on April 20, MPs voted against an amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill that would give them powers of scrutiny by requiring any offshoring plans to be approved by Parliament.
Speaking to The Bristol Activist at today’s rally, Green Party co-leader Carla Denyer said she understands people’s feelings of disenchantment with writing to MPs and signing petitions, but said that it can make a difference, explaining that some government proposals in the Borders have passed because opposition members of the House of Lords left before the vote.
Denyer also said that although the Green Party do not have many seats in the Houses of Parliament, their MPs and Lords have been ‘rallying, cajoling and persuading’ MPs and Lords from other parties into trying to stop the Borders Bill, or, she said, ‘at the very least to remove the worst aspects of it.’
Some speakers at the rally attempted to look beyond the Borders Bill and asked what could be done to tackle the racism and anti-refugee sentiment at work in British society more broadly.
In a speech to the crowd, Bristol Green councillor Lorraine Francis said in no uncertain terms that the Borders Bill is grounded in racism.
‘We’ve got people fleeing their countries, for whatever reason, on a rickety boat where they’ve already spent thousands of pounds giving to somebody to transport them here, and when they get here we are going to tell them that you’re going to go to Rwanda. What is that? That is racism. Because you don’t want people that look like me in this country.’
In rousing words, Francis said that just because the government can pass legislation, said Francis, ‘doesn’t mean that we can’t stand up and fight it.’ Drawing parallels with the campaign against the poll tax in the 1990s Francis said that campaign won ‘because we were determined that it was a totally preposterous system.’
She went on to say: ‘We’ve got to do the same thing. Tell your neighbours, tell everybody in your ward, tell your friends and shout from the rooftops that we will not accept this. We are not going to accept racism.’
Alice Cutler, of Bristol Refugee Rights and Patients Not Passports, called for more widespread opposition. We need to ‘challenge how we got into this position in the first place,’ she said.
Cutler accepted that this is not easy, saying: ‘If there were any easy answers to this we would have found them by now.’ But she insisted that the fight must continue.
‘It’s about challenging the whole concept of whiteness and race and class,’ Cutler said, arguing that these are ideas that not only allow for legislation like the Borders Bill but also enable the wider public to accept it. She also cast derision on previous Labour governments for “laying the ground” for the government’s refugee policies today.
The government says the Borders Bill is necessary to make the asylum system fairer, deter illegal entry into the UK, “break the business model of criminal trafficking” and remove from the UK those with no right to be here.
One change the new Bill will introduce is to define regular and irregular routes to the UK, with anyone arriving via an irregular route (such as by boat across the Channel) deemed to be arriving illegally, which, under the new law, would be punishable by up to four years in prison.
This change would allow the government to sidestep the issue, highlighted by campaigners, that under international law there is no such thing as an illegal refugee or asylum seeker.
What can you do?
Alongside the BDASC rally on Saturday, Bristol City of Sanctuary have an open letter to sign to express opposition to Home Office plans.
Detention Action have a petition against offshore detention available to sign here.
IMIX, a communications company working to change the conversation around immigration and refugees, have an open letter addressed to the Prime Minister which you can sign here.
Huck Magazine’s Ben Smoke started a petition which is approaching 70,000 signatures and can be signed here.
Did you go this protest? What did you think? Let us know in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Feature image: Robert J Browne.