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
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'.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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'.
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
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
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
The family of Ruhallah Aramesh mark the spot where he was murdered by racists
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
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?
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
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 49, November 1992