Mullin's rivers of blood

Manny Neira tackles some of the myths surrounding immigration

"Like the Roman, I see the River Tiber foaming with much blood."

Enoch Powell's was a very well educated ignorance. In 1968 he began his most famous speech with these words, deploying a classical education to legitimise the warped instincts, prejudices and fears of a whole swathe of plebeian and middle class reaction. Hatred of fellow human beings on the grounds of race was given patrician airs and graces. The 'rivers of blood' he foresaw would flow from the victims of the violence which was Britain's inevitable fate if it did not reduce its black population.

Powell's most recent intellectual inheritor is Labour MP Chris Mullin. Last week, his home affairs select committee produced a report which argued that Britain could not afford to provide a home to the 110,700 foreigners who applied for asylum last year. Eloquent racism was replaced with cold bureaucratic euphemism - "social unrest" will follow if the flow of migrants is not stemmed.

People have the legal right to escape persecution by fleeing to Britain under the terms of the United Nations' Declaration on territorial asylum, but it is the host country - in other words its government, and not the UN - which decides if such persecution has actually taken place. Our home office applies harsh criteria to distinguish 'genuine' asylum-seekers from mere 'economic migrants'. In short, if you can prove you are likely to be tortured or shot in your own country, you may possibly be allowed to remain in Great Britain. If you are merely likely to be homeless and go hungry, you must return to your own country.

Asylum-seekers and other immigrants are intensely vulnerable. Often they had to escape their home countries by circuitous routes to avoid detection by the states they fear, and are able to take few possessions. Where they exist, the very papers which might provide evidence of the risks they face in their own states are the most dangerous things they might be caught carrying. More commonly, no such documented proof is possible: torturers do not provide receipts. Not all refugees are educated or literate, and many do not speak English. The system is stacked against them.

Are refugees so treated because immigration is a threat to the welfare of existing British residents? Is this a necessary, if unpalatable, safeguard? Consider the following:

In short, capitalism normally benefits. That reactionary journal The Economist has long argued the case for almost unrestricted migration - not on the grounds of justice or human freedom, but simply for the health of capitalism.

Through membership of the European Union, Great Britain bestows the right of permanent settlement to all 350 million people living within its borders. What the EU and advanced capitalist countries want to do is to control immigration, particularly in regard to poor and unskilled workers, whose level of culture, language and other abilities may often render them less profitable to exploit as wage slaves. However, the very illegality of officially unsanctioned immigration can also provide capital with a source of worst paid labour. Men and women who live in dread of deportation will accept extremely low pay and appalling living conditions. Whole industries rely on their superexploitation. They can also be used to undermine working class solidarity and the ability of unions to defend their members' rights.

Equally, immigrants provide a scapegoat: someone to blame for the problems which face ordinary people. Such blame properly lies, of course, with the government and the capitalist system it administers, and Blair is happy to see it deflected against the 'outsider'. Unlike in 1968, when opposition to black immigration was openly espoused by a minority of mainstream politicians, in 2003 this official chauvinism is not constructed around racism. All Britons, black and white, are called upon to unite against the deadly threat from 'bogus asylum-seekers'.

To this end, both major parties are now vying with each other to present the 'toughest' immigration policy, and in doing so are handing a gift to the British National Party, who have elevated the scapegoating of immigrants into a guiding political principle. While both Labour and Conservative parties protest their contempt of the BNP, they continue to peddle the same anti-immigration line.

The real solution to problems of poverty, housing and the provision of public services lies in the transformation of society into one run by and for people and not profit: and the Socialist Alliance was well placed to present this message. But the failure of the tactics of the Socialist Workers Party through its dominance of both the SA and the Anti-Nazi League was expressed clearly in the results of the recent local elections: the very results which John Rees - incredibly - offered as evidence of success at the SA conference. Yet the BNP now holds 16 wards nationally, and the SA only one.

We cannot defeat the divisive chauvinism of the mainstream by yelling 'Nazi!' at a few BNP boneheads. Communists and revolutionary socialists must take this chauvinism on where it resides: in the official ideology of the establishment itself. We must argue the case for international working class solidarity, for the right of all people - whether they are fleeing persecution or seeking a better life - to travel, live and work where they choose.