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In the shadow of the Asylum Bill

Ruhallah Aramesh was beaten to death by racists in south London. Andrew Calcutt asks what could have prompted them to do it

Ruhallah Aramesh was a 24-year old Afghan refugee living in Thornton Heath in the south London borough of Croydon. On the night of Friday 31 July he was set upon by a group of youths wielding iron bars. Aramesh died in hospital two days later, without regaining consciousness. Seven people currently face charges ranging from murder to violent disorder. Most of them are juveniles under 17.

The killing was condemned by politicians, the press and the police. 'Murdered by a gang of racists' was the front-page headline of the London Evening Standard. Superintendent John Jones called it 'a crime that the police service and all right-thinking members of the public will abhor and condemn in the strongest possible terms'. A few days later, addressing Hindus in Croydon, home office minister Peter Lloyd described Aramesh's murder as 'ghastly'. He pledged the 'commitment' of the Tory government 'to all young people regardless of race', and declared 'the way young people choose to live their lives will determine whether we eventually eliminate racial prejudice'.

Top down

Lloyd was apportioning blame as well as expressing sympathy. In the official version of events, racial violence is the responsibility of feckless youths who fail to meet British standards of civilised behaviour. Against this underclass are ranged 'all right-thinking people', with the Tory government, the home office and respectable journalists at their head.

The minister's outlook is an inversion of reality. British racism starts at the top and works its way down to the streets of south London, where racist attacks are a continuation of government policy by other means. Chances are that Ruhallah Aramesh would still be alive today if not for the anti-immigrant atmosphere created by the 'right-thinking people' who expressed horror at his death. The government, aided and abetted by the police and the media, has created a racially charged climate in which people can feel free to blame immigrants and refugees for society's ills.

Lunar House is a couple of miles away from the spot where Aramesh was killed. This Croydon landmark is the headquarters of the home office department whose job is to keep would-be immigrants out of Britain, and keep close tabs on those who do get in. Immigration officers based at Lunar House will be awarded new powers to deport asylum-seekers if the new Asylum Bill runs its expected course during the current parliament.

Hostile home office

The Asylum Bill was drawn up under the aegis of former home secretary Kenneth Baker. Its current sponsor is new home secretary Kenneth Clarke. This year both have made statements which can only have confirmed public hostility towards asylum-seekers.

When Tory fortunes seemed at a low ebb in the days before the April general election, Baker gave the electorate a glimpse of the race card. Less than a week before polling day, he declared that many of the 45 000 who applied for refugee status in 1991 were bogus; that the growth in support for German fascists was due to the flood of migrants and asylum-seekers; and that good race relations depend on tough immigration and asylum laws. At a press briefing in London, prime minister John Major gave his unreserved support for Baker's inflammatory remarks.

Baker's successor, Kenneth Clarke, also wants to be seen as tough on immigration. He has expressed his determination that the creation of a European market must not interfere with British border controls. Meanwhile the Financial Times reports that the home office is considering new equipment ('smart cards', biometric technology) to 'ease immigration procedures not only for Community nationals but also for frequent visitors from countries such as the US and Japan'. The passport controls which Clarke is determined to retain would then be directed explicitly at entrants from the third world. Once again, asylum-seekers and other third world immigrants are advertised as a threat which Britain must guard against.

'Liable to be detained'

Under Baker and now Clarke, the home office has already tightened immigration procedures in anticipation of the Asylum Bill coming on to the statute books. Many of the new procedures are carried out at Lunar House, Croydon.

Full refugee status is now granted only rarely. Asylum-seekers are more likely to be awarded 'exceptional leave to remain': temporary status subject to review every two years. Ugandan refugees whose cases have come up for review are now being told to go because Britain judges Uganda stable enough for them to return.

All those currently resident in Britain on a temporary basis carry immigration paper IS96 which informs them 'you are a person liable to be detained'. They can be taken into custody at any time as formal arrest is not required. By 1995 there will 300 new places in detention centres for immigrants. The coordinator of Charter 87, which campaigns for refugees, believes that immigration officers will be encouraged to detain 'virtually all' asylum applicants.

Refugee trap

Earlier this year, the immigration service opened a new screening unit at Lunar House. All asylum applicants must now appear there in person to establish their identity. They face hostile questioning by officials who aim to trap refugees into admitting they spent some time - even a few hours - in transit in another country. If they admit this, they will be sent back there immediately.

Lunar House officials require refugees to attend up to six interviews before awarding an immigration paper known as 'the self-acknowledgement letter'. A sequence of six interviews could take months, but without a 'self-acknowledgement letter' the Department of Social Security will not accept any claim for financial support.

Asylum-seekers are understandably wary of appearing for interview at Lunar House. It is not unknown for the immigration officer present to despatch interviewees to the Beehive detention centre near Gatwick. Refugees are particularly apprehensive because detention and eventual deportation seems to occur at the discretion of the immigration officer.

Stamp of approval

A spokesperson for the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants described the newly opened Lunar House screening unit as 'the prelude to fingerprinting'. She says that 'Asylum Bill measures have been introduced illegally'. The home office has already reduced the number of refugees allowed to stay in Britain, as a circular reports: 'Provisional information on decisions in 1991, which may be incomplete, is of 420 grants of asylum; 1860 grants of exceptional leave and 2410 refusals...a considerable increase in refusals.'

Lunar House is the administrative centre for debarring, detaining and spying on immigrants. Immigration laws enforced at Lunar House give the impression that migrants are criminals and parasites, that asylum-seekers and refugees are an alien threat which must be firmly dealt with. The atmosphere created effectively gives an official stamp of approval to freelance racists like those who beat Aramesh to death.

The media backs up the government line that immigrants are a problem to be sorted out. Every corner shop on the way from Lunar House to Thornton Heath sells newspapers reporting the heroic exploits of south London police, prison officers and the immigration service in rounding up 'bogus' asylum-seekers and throwing them out of the country.

Low Standard

The London Evening Standard made a point of condemning the killing of Aramesh. It also makes a habit of running Boy's Own-type features about intrepid immigration police running illegal immigrants to ground: 'The Great M4 Migrants Chase....Passage from India ends in many arrests as 30 flee from lorry hideout' (23 March 1992). 'Thirteen alleged illegal immigrants were being questioned today after a raid on Whipps Cross hospital....Operation Angel...removed at the earliest opportunity' (20 March 1992). The home office even allowed the Standard to photograph a 'fishing raid' on a factory in Mitcham, south London (2 December 1991). The accompanying story made it clear that claiming asylum is a ruse which robs the British taxpayer: 'applications for asylum are...costing the country £400m a year to process.' A stowaway was quoted as saying 'in England you can claim political asylum and it takes five years. If I get sent back to India, it is not a big problem. I will just try again'.

'A time-bomb'

Two days after condemning the murder of Aramesh, the Standard ran a story about bogus refugees conning money out of travellers on the London Underground (5 August 1992). For good measure, the adjoining article was headed 'Blitz on dole cheats nets £34m for the taxpayer'. A month later, the Standard warned that refugee children from East Africa could 'overwhelm London's social services'. It quoted Jenny Bianco, Tory chair of Westminster social services, saying 'the issue is a time-bomb' (9 September 1992).

Papers like the Standard continually give credence to the idea that refugees are scroungers, to blame for inadequate public services in Britain. Then they express horror when a refugee is attacked by members of the British public.

No lessons needed

The police too claimed to be horrified by the murder of Ruhallah Aramesh. Yet the track record of the immigration police and their associates in the prison service has added to the anti-refugee atmosphere. Last year, a Zairian refugee was accused of stealing and taken to Pentonville prison in north London. He died after prison officers applied 'restraint and control' techniques. In September 1992, a sick Ugandan refugee died after being detained in Belmarsh prison, south London. James Segawa alleged he was assaulted at Belmarsh. Then there was a delay in transferring him to the Mayday hospital in Thornton Heath, where he had previously been diagnosed HIV-positive and treated for tuberculosis. He died soon after admission. Doctors at the hospital refused to sign a death certificate and a consultant called for an inquest. Police and prison officers need no lessons from south London youth in how to brutalise refugees.
The family of Ruhallah Aramesh mark the spot where he was murdered by racists

What Nazis?

The Tories hold that racism is foreign to the British tradition. Some anti-racists seem to agree. They claim that racist attacks are inspired by tiny fascist grouplets such as the British National Party ('a van with a BNP sticker had been seen in the area'), which have in turn been inspired by the far right in Germany. The organisers of a local protest march against the murder of Aramesh were so busy chanting 'smash the BNP Nazis' that they strolled past Lunar House without giving it a second glance. Ignoring the control centre of official British racism, they gave the impression that racism is Nazi and non-British.

Below the surface

Representing Croydon Race Equality Council, John Grieg was one of the march organisers. He conceded there was 'not much' BNP activity in the Croydon area. The only BNP poster near the home of Aramesh was put there after he was killed. Grieg also said there was 'not much overt racism' locally. And he's right; there are no 'Blacks keep out' signs in pubs, no mobs with swastikas tattooed on their foreheads. But
there is a powerful vein of 'respectable' British racism, as promoted by the powers-that-be, running just below the surface and ready to erupt at any time.

The spot in Thornton Heath where Aramesh was attacked is directly in front of a greengrocer's (it was closed at the time). Watching the protest march and the laying of a wreath, the woman behind the counter declared: 'I don't see what there is to protest about. It wasn't racist - he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.' She recalled the death of Terry May in 1981. One black youth was convicted of manslaughter, although she recalled 'a disabled white lad set upon by 20 blacks'. She referred favourably to an article in the Croydon Advertiser by Paul Fernandez. He warns against 'the risk of exacerbating the race issue by giving it so much prominence in the media', while admitting that blacks and whites drink in different bars in his local pub.

On the other side of the road, a group of white youths looked disgruntled. The march was 'bollocks...you wouldn't hear about it if it was a white man...this sort of carry on only causes aggravation'. Only one out of five had heard of the BNP; he'd read the initials on 'Smash the BNP' posters which he and his mates had spent the previous week tearing down. Not that they saw themselves as supporters of the far right. They didn't want 'refugee business' in the area. 'Refugees would be all right if they didn't stay. But they do. And they know about our health service and they come for the housing.' Now where have I heard that before?

Civilised Britain?

The anti-Nazi approach misses the point: racism is as British as egg and bacon. Not only is it mistaken, the obsession with swastikas also gives ground to the argument that Britain is civilised and racism is an import from the other side of the Channel. Flying the flag for British values is no way to build opposition to racism - the cutting edge of British nationalism today.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 49, November 1992

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