As desperate migrants make their way across the channel in small dinghies, the Home Secretary suggests deploying the Navy. Here Councillor Sue Lukes, Islington Council’s Migrant Champion, writing in a personal capacity, proposes an alternative approach, and below we publish a statement from the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs.
Migration may be a national government responsibility, writes Sue Lukes, but it is to local places that migrants come and the kind of reception they get depends enormously on local leadership. The twitter thread I quote in full below shows what can be achieved if that local leadership is strong and welcoming.
All over Europe, solidarity cities work together, sharing knowledge, information and best practice about the challenges and opportunities presented by the arrival of refugees and migrants, with an emphasis on human rights and dignity. In Britain, many cities of sanctuary have signed up to build a culture of hospitality and support.
Labour, wherever, it is in power, in local councils or regional government, should play a leading role in this approach. Some cities talk about “getting the migrant advantage”, recognising that migrants often bring diversity, new approaches and community strengths. Failure to do so creates space for right wing bigots and xenophobes to exploit the plight of migrants for their own ends.
Crises of this kind show the essential good in humanity. Good local leadership can bring this out, creating a climate where integration and civic consciousness go hand in hand. The wonderful thread below, posted on twitter by Nicholas Whithorn, tells a powerful story of simple humanity and good local government. We have both in the UK – let’s use them.
Short thread on events of 7 March 1991, when the 90,000 people of Brindisi woke up to find 25,000 Albanians roaming the streets of their town. For perspective, that’s roughly equivalent to 25,000 people suddenly landing in Hastings.
At 10 a.m. on Thursday 7 March 1991, the cargo ship ‘Lirja’ enters the port of Brindisi, carrying 5,000 Albanians fleeing their homeland. They’d taken over the ship in the port of Durrës and forced the crew to sail to Italy. At noon, another ship ‘Tirana’ arrives carrying 6,000.
In the afternoon, yet another ship, ‘Apollonia’, arrives, along with several fishing boats. Then, in the evening, the final ship, ‘Legend’. Italian Coast Guard ships offshore decide not to intervene or block the vessels as they’re all in precarious condition and dangerously overloaded.
Any intervention to push back the ships could result in them capsizing and thousands of people drowning, so they are let through. As they arrive in the port, people make the sign of victory and shout “Italia, Italia!”
As soon as the ships dock, desperate people shin down the mooring ropes or jump into the water to swim ashore. The dockside is packed with dirty, hungry, shivering men, women and children. It is very cold and a light rain is falling.
The Italian state is totally unprepared for this emergency and local authorities are left to cope alone. Red Cross volunteers hand out food parcels and plastic sheeting to shelter from the rain but supplies are limited and they are swamped. Many people are suffering from dysentery.
During the night pressure grows among the refugees to get out of the overcrowded dock and, once they start to push their way out or climb the fences, the Police and Carabinieri on duty sensibly do nothing to stop them but regulate the flow of people to avoid a stampede.
By daybreak the city of Brindisi has at least 25,000 Albanian refugees wandering its streets. The Mayor of the city, Giuseppe Marchionna, realises that the situation could get out of hand. If desperate hungry people break into a food shop, violence could ensue.
Marchionna knows his people well and so he quickly records a message to be broadcast on all local TV and radio stations. It is sent out at 8 a.m. and then every 15 minutes for the rest of the day. The message is simple: “They are just hungry and cold, help them.”
The first signs that his message is working come in mid-morning as people throw bags full of food to the refugees from their balconies. Gradually, after this timid start, local people begin to open up to the Albanian refugees.
People give them money to call their families and reassure them and to buy food. They give them clothes to replace the dirty rags they are wearing. They let them use their showers and phones and make them meals. People with spare rooms take in women and children.
Things begin to get more organised, even though the central government sends no help until 12 March. Whole buildings organise canteens in their basements or garages, 36 schools are requisitioned to house refugees, more and more people open up their houses to take them in.
Finally, after 3 weeks, the government sends in the army. Most of the refugees are transferred to Palermo, Capua and Udine. A call centre is set up and receives hundreds of calls from all over Italy offering to house refugees.
Most of them made their lives in Italy and still live here. Others made their fortune and returned home once their country was free. They certainly all recall the solidarity of Brindisi, thanks to those simple words of humanity, “They are just hungry and cold, help them.”
Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs statement
Solidarity with migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers
We stand in solidarity with migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers, and reaffirm the moral and legal right for refugees to claim asylum in the UK.
While the Conservative government and their billionaire press baron allies try to whip up fear about a “migrant crisis”, we know that the real crisis is the war, poverty and persecution that forces people to flee their homes and take dangerous journeys in search of a better life. Climate catastrophe, unless urgently averted by international governmental cooperation, will mean further crises causing more people to need to seek sanctuary.
Rather than treating these people with hostility, with threats to deploy military vessels to deter crossings, the UK should provide safe and legal routes to people seeking to claim asylum.
The UK must do its fair share in providing a welcoming home to refugees. The current support for asylum seekers – £37.75 a week – and the ban on their right to work is inhumane.
The fact that it is often aggressive wars led by the UK and our allies that forces people to flee their homes gives us a special responsibility to these people.
This latest drive by the Conservatives is a blatant attempt to distract the public from their calamitous handling of Coronavirus, which is leading to economic turmoil that will devastate working people’s livelihoods.
This divide and rule tactic must be fought by the entire labour movement. The real cause of problems working class people face is an economic system rigged for the super-rich, not migrants.
Diane Abbott MP, Tahir Ali MP, Paula Barker MP, Apsana Begum MP, Olivia Blake MP, Christine Blower, Pauline Bryan, Richard Burgon MP, Dawn Butler MP, Ian Byrne MP, Shami Chakrabarti, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Mary Foy MP, John Hendy , Ian Lavery MP, Clive Lewis MP, Rebecca Long-Bailey MP, John McDonnell MP, Ian Mearns MP, Grahame Morris MP, Kate Osamor MP, Kate Osborne MP, Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP, Lloyd Russell-Moyle MP, Zarah Sultana MP, Sam Tarry MP, Jon Trickett MP, Claudia Webbe MP, Mick Whitley MP, Nadia Whittome MP, Beth Winter MP.