The Socialist Unity Network

Solidarity not pity

Rethinking campaigns against deportation

Steve Cohen



Whose reality is it anyway?


“If a young person tells me they were raped, I say good!  Tell me the details. The more sordid  the better


This quotation is not from  a predatory male. It is from a feminist lawyer who has devoted two decades to fighting racism and preventing her clients being deported. In the article from which this quote is taken the lawyer says she “had become an unwitting party in the oppression of children and at the same time she felt that she had little option”.


There is obviously something strange and dubious happening here. And what is happening is the fighting of deportation/removal cases on so-called “compassionate” grounds. This practice has become so routine and unquestioned that it is possible to provide a league table of  typical grounds. These are (1) adverse effect on welfare of children (2) ill-health (3) domestic violence (4) family separation. (5) old age


What is immediately clear from the above is that the people most vulnerable to immigration enforcement are the young, single, healthy and childless. What compassionate grounds remain open to them? None.



Compassionate grounds as spreading illusions - the legal and the political


The purpose of this debate initiated by he No One Is Illegal group is to stand present reality on its head. It is to challenge one of the central orthodoxies of resisting controls. It is to question ideologically one of the weapons used by all of us who are opposed in one way or another to immigration controls. It is to redefine as at the most problematic  and at worst as reactionary something which is normally seen as unquestionably progressive


None of the issues raised here are easy. And up to a point, but not beyond it,  a distinction has to be made. This is between the ways cases are presented by representatives to the Home Office (the “private”) and the way they are presented politically through campaigns (the “public”).  Given the balance of forces – with the Home Office being immeasurably more powerful than the individual – it is clear that legal advocates will be obliged to present whatever grounds are deemed necessary to win a case. As Malcolm X said in a very different context – by any means necessary.


However political campaigns are different.  Their purpose, or one of their purposes, is to make political points as part of the process of winning a victory. And the political point at issue here is the need to challenge at every step the legitimacy of controls themselves. Without challenging the very principle of controls then we are simply creating or reinforcing a vicious circle within which the undocumented remain trapped.  Making compassionate grounds the basis of a public campaign is simply reducing the spurious argument that there can be “fair” controls to the individual case. It is  spreading illusions that there can be  “justice” within controls. As such  it is contributing to the myth there can be “non-racist” controls.


Moreover there is absolutely no contradiction between fighting a case whilst at the same time making it clear that the basis of the fight is a principled opposition to all restrictions. Any  suggestion that individuals under threat of deportation are being used as “guinea pigs”  is misconceived and outrageous. Rather  raising the issue of controls in principle is an open and honest attempt to generalise the issue away from the individual and to show immigration restrictions are a political construct threatening the unwanted, the unchosen – the undocumented.. Indeed whatever is said in campaign literature the individual fighting deportation is inevitably taking a position against all controls. The very act of defiance is an overwhelming statement of disregard for the law .It is an implicit assertion that No One Is Illegal   



Compassionate grounds as de-humanisation.


It is  sometimes argued that raising compassionate grounds “humanises” a campaign – making it easier to win than one fought on some broad political abstractions which it is claimed may alienate potential supporters  However the reality is that these grounds actually dehumanise the individual. They patronise  him or her – giving those threatened by controls the appearance of being passive victims and thus adding to the sum total of racism around immigration restrictions.. Emphasising issues of vulnerability (such as child abuse etc)  and ignoring the political reasons for expulsions replaces real humanity with an accumulation of perceived weaknesses. It substitutes political explanation with a list of individual pathologies.



Compassionate grounds as pathologisation


This pathologisation is seen most clearly in the emphasis given to ill-health by campaigns. Sickness or disability are regularly transformed into arguments for the postponement or permanent lifting of the immigration threat. It is as though there exists some unacknowledged point-scoring system: one point for influenza briefly postponing an air flight, two points for a surgical operation delaying departure longer….five points for a nervous breakdown caused by fear of expulsion….eight points for risk of suicide.. ten points for terminal illness.


Many cases can be used to illustrate this pathologisation. In particular the case of a gay couple, one English and his partner threatened (because of the law’s homophobia as well as racism) with deportation. The English partner was diagnosed as having HIV and this became the “compassionate ground” on which the case was fought. However just before the case was to be heard in the High Court it was discovered that he did not have HIV. He had invented the condition by getting a friend who did have the illness to give blood in his name. He hadn’t even told his partner of this.  This almost unbelievable scenario shows the lengths to which people are driven by immigration controls. It was prompted by the fact that he had been told that  it was necessary to have “compassionate grounds” before his partner could remain here. So he pathologised himself as diseased.






Compassionate grounds as competitive and divisive


Raising compassionate grounds in this way  produces and reproduces some sort of rat race. Each case has to show it is deserving of more “compassion” than the previous one.. There is a humiliating scramble  with everyone under threat seeking to prove  they are more ill, or abused, or vulnerable than  others in the queue. Contesting removal, far from being a political response to a political attack, takes on the appearance of  a pilgrimage to Lourdes. The saved are those who reach the holy waters first. . This has two consequences. First it is extremely divisive. It  sets up a competition between all those threatened with expulsion  Second it continually raises the stakes as to the level of compassionate grounds required to convince the Home Office – an agency which is not in any event prone to sympathy.. So  for a single gay man - or a gay couple to be allowed to remain together – it is insufficient to have HIV. Full blown AIDS  is what is demanded..  Internal instructions to immigration officers issued in 1995 state “persons certified as having AIDS should be distinguished from those where the person concerned has been diagnosed as HIV positive. A person who has been diagnosed as HIV positive  may still be well  and a serious case for exceptional treatment is unlikely to arise. (Where a person) has only a few months to live…cases will be referred back”. So much for compassionate grounds! The criterion, the standard to be reached, for remaining is terminal disease and death.




Compassionate grounds as  exceptionalism, as justifications for stay.


Fundamental to campaigning on compassionate grounds are the rotten  politics of exceptionalism.  The public message is clear -  most people or are destined for expulsion but others, the exceptional, the chosen, should be allowed to remain.  The Victorian distinction between the worthy and unworthy poor is simple transferred to the twenty first century deportee. As we have seen unwarranted criticisms have been made about using  and abusing individuals  threatened by removal to make explicit political points – the point of opposition to all controls.. The reality is just the opposite. Whenever campaigns agitate on compassionate grounds then there is being made an implicit political point – that those without such grounds, should presumably be expelled..


Behind all this is another equally reactionary public message, namely that  those who wish to stay are obliged to justify this wish. They are obliged to account for their presence here. It is only by arguing against controls in principle that it is possible to assert the contrary – that everyone has the absolute right to remain irrespective of personal circumstances..






Compassionate grounds as stereotyping


Pathologisation transcends the individual. It encompasses whole countries and indeed continents. These are regularly and grossly stereotyped by campaigns as part of the presentation of compassionate grounds. There is painted a picture of a world beyond Britain and Western Europe which is an uncivilised welfare and educational desert devoid of all order- where children do not have schooling, where mothers and children are kidnapped without restraint by uncontrollable males, where there are nil health facilities. It is true that the world beyond the imperial heartlands is hugely under-resourced – mainly as a result of imperial economic and military intervention. However this does not mean that these countries have lapsed into social barbarism and reverted to their supposedly natural state of primitive savagery. Anyhow imagine the boot on the other foot. Imagine an English person being deported from, for example, India (it happens). How would a hypothetical campaign depict the UK?





Compassionate grounds as transforming the bad into good, the undesirable into the desirable


Consider  undesirable personal and social situations that everyone would wish to avoid – being abused as a child, being battered as a woman, being ill, being too old to be independent. All these undesirable attributes suddenly become desirable, treasured, the holy grail when it comes to contesting immigration cases. They are the hallowed compassionate grounds. Conversely campaigning on such grounds inevitably means that their absence – that is the absence of abuse, of being battered of terminal illness etc – becomes a positive disadvantage. This truly is a world turned upside down. A world where the bad becomes the good.  A world where liberal and  grotesque ideas have been allowed to dominate. A world where all that should be avoided or contested is welcomed and embraced   A world where those fighting deportations can state “If a young person tells me they were raped, I say good!  Tell me the details. The more sordid  the better”




Restraining lawyers


We saw above that a distinction has to be made between the private presentation of a case to the Home Office and the public campaigning. We have also seen how at least one lawyer has said she has felt compromised in adding to the oppression of children by presenting “abuse” as something positive within immigration cases. They are several lessons here. First it is good to be conscious of what is happening politically here – many legal representatives simply do not have this political awareness. Second the distinction between the “private” and the “public” is not a static one. For instance what is left of the immigration appeal system takes place within the sphere of the public. Lawyers should be careful as to what is said ideologically at these hearings.  Third legal representatives often go well beyond what is required in the presentation of “compassionate” grounds. Classic examples of this appear in the realm of stereotyping. A typical example is the presentation of children as being too “westernised” to be deported. Implicit within this is the notion of the superiority of Western values, culture etc. Finally it is not beyond contemplation that lawyers can cross over from arguing cases on compassionate grounds to making  a political case based on the racism of controls as such. This itself depends on the strength of the political campaign behind a case. But it is not inconceivable. An example can be taken from a case concerning racism but not immigration. In the early 1980s  twelve youths in Bradford (the Bradford 12) were accused of making petrol bombs.  They did not deny this. The bombs were made in case of fascist attack by the National Front which was rampant at the time. . There was a massive national campaign under the slogan “Self defence is no offence!”. This right to make bombs then became the core of the legal argument. And the verdict…not guilty!





The battle for ideas.


Immigration campaigns are about winning cases, about stopping expulsions. However they are  not, or should not, simply, be about this.. They are inescapably and unavoidably part of a battle for ideas. This is a battle on three fronts which are really only one front. First is the ideological struggle to expose immigration controls as racist. Second  is the struggle to show that controls are not inevitable. Third is the struggle to explain that there cannot be “fair” or “just” or “reasonable” or “non-racist” controls. Within this battle the reliance politically on compassionate grounds is spreading false ideas on all three fronts. It assumes, by  not challenging, the very existence of controls as an unquestionable fact of life – rather than a political construct that can be fought. . It  presents the idea that controls can indeed be compassionate -  that is “fair” and devoid of racism. Every time it is argued that someone is in the camp of the “worthy” or the “exceptional” there is legitimised the whole ideology of immigration control which asserts its own authority on the backs of the “unworthy and “unexceptional” – that is  the “bogus”, the “illegal”. Some people claim it is utopic to argue for the abolition of all controls – that this would require a revolution. It may well require a revolution. However the sanitisation of controls into their opposite, into something fair and non-racist, would require a miracle...



Compassionate grounds and the great leap


There is a particular miraculous quality behind this concentration on compassionate grounds.  It assumes a leap of faith. It assumes that once people are won over on a case by case basis by a sense of pity then it will be possible to convince them to challenge controls in principle. History has shown that consciousness does not work like this. Thousands, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of members of the public have over the last thirty years written letters or signed petitions  or sent post cards protesting individual cases on compassionate grounds. In fact it is not at all difficult for a campaign to gain support on this level However it is quite clear that these vast numbers have not made the leap into opposing the totality of controls. And there is a political reason for this. Opposing controls per se requires more than a sense of pity. It requires resisting the idea that law is absolute and should always be obeyed  It requires  a recognition that what is at stake here is a battle against the state and the entire state machinery. The achievement of this recognition can only be helped by the honest advocacy of abolition of all controls. Conversely it can only be hindered through the false illusion of “fair” or compassionate controls.





The alternative


Campaigns against deportation are central in the struggle against controls. They have been responsible for building up a culture of resistance to restrictionsThey refuse to go away. They are a testimony to the resilience of the oppressed. They have existed for a quarter of a century – the first significant campaign being that of Nasira Begum against deportation in the late 1970s. But as supporters we need to re-evaluate them and not over-romanticise them. In  particular there is a need  based on all the reasons given above to re-evaluate the constant presentation of compassionate grounds as somehow providing a basis for struggle. This then immediately raises the question as to what is the alternative?  How else can cases be fought if not on the basis of personal circumstances and personal stories? The almost absolute absence of experience of fighting in other ways does in itself make this a difficult question to answer. But there are answers.


Slogans don’t win cases. But they show the way forward. And the relevant slogan here is  Solidarity Not Pity!  This encompasses two inter-locked points. First  coming or remaining in the UK should not be a not a matter of charity – of compassion. It should be an absolute right. Second  rights cannot be achieved through begging, through asking for pity – for compassion. They can only be obtained through struggle – through solidarity


Solidarity Not Pity! points the way in a particular political direction. This is the direction of the collectivisation of campaigns.  Fighting campaigns one by one, on a serial basis  reinforces the atomisation of those under threat of expulsion. This itself leads to a situation of  weakness, of begging and pleading rather than demanding. Fighting together  with others in the same or similar situation is one way out of this dead end. There are examples of this from the 1980s. One example was the Wives and Fiancée's Campaign. This fought collectively for the right of women to both have their overseas partners come to this country. or, if they themselves were from abroad, to be able to leave their partners without being deported.. It was a fight for immigration autonomy lead and directed by the women themselves.


Solidarity Not Pity!  Is also making another political point. This is one of militancy.  The more militant, the more imaginative, the more subversive, the more public – then the greater the possibility of politicising a campaign and of challenging the very existence of controls.. The reality is that most campaigns today do not aspire to this. There has been a huge shift since the 1980s – a shift backwards. From the struggle of Nasira Begum to that of Anwar Ditta (fighting to get her children here) to that of Viraj Mendis  virtually all campaigns were characterised by  their energy, by their public presence and by the variety of initiatives there were taken to build public support. They  cultivated support within the labour movement.  They organised  lively anti-racist conferences. They produced informative and rebellious  literature. They engaged in direct action. They organised spectacular events.  They were energetic. They were in constant touch with each other. They often shared the same actions. They had a  constant presence on the streets..  They were lead by the undocumented themselves. They rejected self-appointed so-called “community leaders” They .were based on the self-activity of those under threat – who spoke at meetings both locally and nationally. They were dangerous.  They were a danger to the state machinery of controls..  Compare that with the situation today and building up over the last  decade– where  campaigns often appear to have simply a cyber-space existence (perhaps with petitions and standard letters) without any public presence .


There were occasional exceptions to this passivity. The slogan Solidarity Not Pity! was first raised in the successful campaign of the Rahman family in Bolton in the early 1990s.. The fact that the campaign attracted huge support and that it was successful answers those faint-hearts who suggest  that fighting a case from a position of opposition to all controls will alienate potential supporters , will result in defeat and will see those under threat of deportation sacrificed on the alter of some abstract principle. Just the opposite was the case. It was the outspoken politics of the campaign which attracted the support.. The Rahman family itself was beset with serious illness. However within the public (as opposed to the legal) domain there was a serious and conscious effort not to make this the basis of the campaign. There was a  significant effort to preserve the dignity of the family by not having their private lives  made unnecessarily public.  Instead there was raised the slogan Solidarity Not Pity!  As a consequence it at least became possible, at least there were opportunities, to raise and challenge the existence of controls in principle. This lead to  one major demonstration which took over the centre of Bolton and also to a major conference (“Communities of Resistance”) which brought together on a national basis all existing grassroots campaigns against racism.  Within this activity it would have been a nonsense to raise the demand for “compassionate” immigration controls. The only demand worth raising in this context was for the abolition of controls.. And this was the demand that in essence became central to the campaign as the context became stronger and stronger.





Solidarity Not Pity! also provides one final political lesson. This is that  unless campaigns are guided by the undocumented themselves then  they simply become, at their best, high-powered social work.. Unless campaigns are built  on the self-organisation of those threatened by controls  then they  are just another form of charity. Charity begs for compassion. Self-organisation demands rights and has a contempt for all controls whatever their legal form. Self-organisation is directed against controls in principle. The role of the documented is to provide solidarity with this self activity - not pity  .


September 2004


For Socialist Unity ~ For Internationalism ~ For Peace ~ For Justice ~ For Unity ~ For Socialism