The Socialist Unity Network

The value of compassion

Andy Newman, Race Officer, Wiltshire and Swindon GMB (Personal Capacity)


Steve Cohen's article about anti-deportation campaigns raises some interesting points, but I regret I have very little sympathy with his arguments.

Firstly let me spell out my qualifications on this subject. Between 1994 and 1997 I was secretary of the campaign Mumtaz Begum Must Stay!  and last year I was chair of the Save Inna Haville  campaign. Both of these campaigns were "hopeless", because the legal process had been completed and all final appeals rejected. At which case the only option is for a political campaign to persuade the Home Secretary (or the Minister for Immigration) to overturn the deportation. In law the only grounds these ministers can intervene is the exercise of the Crown Prerogative of compassion. I will return to this point later.


Anti-deportation campaigns have to be waged on the basis of the particular facts of the cases - not abstract principles - if they are to succeed. Before I address the political basis of my disagreements with Steve I would like to discuss the specifics of the cases I have been involved with. I make no apologies for this, because both of these cases were victorious and I believe both would have been lost following Steve's approach. Both Mumtaz Begum and Inna Haville are alive and well, living in Swindon where they want to be. We defied the home office and we won. What is more, the specifics of the cases reveal the fallacies behind some of Steve's arguments.


Mumtaz Begum was an elderly woman (her age was a question of dispute between the home office and the family). She had been born in British India but is a Pakistani citizen. The degree of her ill-health was also in dispute, but she was (and is) certainly unable to fend for herself. All of her family are British citizens living in Swindon and Reading. She had visited her daughters a few years earlier on a visitor's visa and overstayed. Our campaign started at the point where the local press took up the fact that all her appeals had been rejected and she would be deported. Until then the family had been relying upon the legal process without a public campaign.


Our campaign was based upon the compassionate grounds of ill-health, her right to stay with her family, and her inability to fend for herself in Pakistan.


Mumtaz's case was politically hard because she speaks no English, her family are very strictly observant Moslems, in a town with only a small Islamic community, and we had Michael Howard as Home secretary! We gained good coverage in the local press, radio and on regional TV.


On the day of the threatened deportation we organised a picket of the family's home including the mayor and the leader of the council (Labour in those days). We made it clear we would defend Mumtaz by "any means necessary", and she was hidden by the local Islamic community. So we organised and supported self defence by the family and their religious community. However the political context for that was solidarity based upon compassion. We managed to create a supportive atmosphere, where no  public voice was raised in the town in favour of deportation. At one stage we even had a Jazz band play at a benefit for the family that included US servicemen from nearby RAF Fairford! We held out for 3 years until the government changed, and the incoming Labour government overturned the deportation order on compassionate grounds.


In the closing months of 2003  BBC Wiltshire revealed the story of Inna Haville, a 19 year old orphan from the Ukraine who lives with a fundamentalist Christian family just outside Swindon. Inna has been in this country since she was 14, and the family had tried to legally adopt her, but been unable to afford the completion of the legal process. When they restated the adoption process 4 years later the Home Office initiated deportation proceedings, and the family had exhausted and been defeated on all legal grounds.


The family themselves had done very well in getting mainstream media cover for the case, in the Evening Standard, and even on GMTV. They had celebrity endorsements from Phillip Schofield, Helen Shapiro, and others. They were making a case on compassionate grounds for keeping the family together, and also the almost total collapse of the Ukrainian economy means that a friendless girl with no recent experience of the country would almost certainly endure a bitter fate.


However, although they were a charming family, there was also a sniff of Waco about them - for example they home educate their children on a creationist literal reading of the bible. This was a potential danger in relying upon a media campaign. The family were also inclined to rely upon the evangelist community for support, and were suspicious of the political left (they were very strong supporters of Israel, and extremely hostile to contact with people of other religious faiths)


We launched a defence campaign. This was necessary in order to keep pressure on the local MP, whose support was beginning to wobble, and MPs play a crucial role once the legal process is complete, as only through an MP can you effectively approach the Home Office to overturn a deportation order on compassionate grounds. The campaign brought forward  a local Ukrainian family who attested to the economic devastation of the country, and the terrible future that would probably await Inna if she returned there. We also organised a phone tree of people prepared to blockade the roads leading to the family's cottage (country lanes) in order to prevent deportation.  We also began discussion with the family about the practicalities and consequences of defying the deportation.  Again we were prepared to organise support for the family's self defence. Fortunately the Home Office gave Inna indefinite leave to stay after only two months of campaigning.


The first point I disagree with Steve about is that although he concedes that the legal case must discuss the specific compassionate grounds, he opposes the support campaigns using similar arguments. He says that "there is absolutely no contradiction between fighting a case and at the same time making it clear that the basis for the fight is a principle of opposition to all restrictions". However, once the legal case is lost the practical objective of the campaign must be to force the Home Office to nullify the deportation order. In fact this will be based upon a cynical calculation by these politicians over how much political damage the campaign is causing. But the campaign has to recognise that the only legal basis for the Home Secretary (or Immigration Minister) to overrule the order is compassionate discretion, and therefore the campaign must make a sufficient case on compassionate grounds to give the politicians a way to retreat. If the campaign does not make a compassionate case, then it is like hoping to win the lottery when you haven't bought a ticket.


Steve is failing to distinguish between the grounds upon which socialists participate in these campaigns (opposition to immigrations controls) and the more limited basis of each individual campaign (to prevent the deportation of specific individuals). Of course socialists should make clear that each instance of injustice is due to a systematically unjust and racist system, but to succeed the campaign must also include people who have not yet drawn that wider conclusion but are prepared to fight over this individual case.


As Steve himself concedes, "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 ". Steve is exactly right that the very fact of campaigning against an individual deportation has within it the seeds of challenging the political basis of immigration controls, however subjective realisation of this can only come from participation. It is for this reason that some individuals drawn into campaigning over an individual have their eyes opened over the whole racist immigration system. He is wrong to believe this is limited to the individuals fighting deportation, it applies to all those in the campaign.


So there are several serious weaknesses in widening the objectives of a campaign to include opposition to all immigration controls. By so doing the social basis of the campaign is narrowed so that it is unlikely to create sufficient pressure upon the Home Secretary to intervene, and it is harder to keep on board a local MP, who can play an important role in interceding with the Home Office. What is more, it deters the participation of people not yet convinced of the need to oppose all immigration controls, both depriving the campaign of their influence and skills, but also depriving these people of the personal experience of going head to head with the State. I have been twice been impressed by the willingness of normally law abiding and conventional individuals to agree to participate if necessary in direct action for defence of those under threat of deportation.


Steve argues that relying upon compassionate grounds de-humanises the individuals - transforming them into passive victims. I believe this is completely wrong. Constructing a compassionate case is shifting the focus away from abstract concepts of nationality, law and immigration policy, and instead forcing the human reality into public consciousness. It strips away the myth of nationality and reveals the people underneath. What is more, the cumulative effect of victorious individual anti-deportation campaigns creates a political presumption that deportations will be contested.


Steve makes the case that compassionate grounds "pathologise" the victims of immigration policy, by making them stress their ill health, etc. Certainly he is correct in recognising the pressure on the effected individuals and their families to present the strongest possible compassionate case. One of the important roles the campaigns can play is to create a buffer between the effected individual and the investigative media. Under pressure, and unaccustomed to media interviewing (particularly where English is not their first language) individuals may not make their case as strongly as campaigners would.


However, Steve is wrong to say that the campaigns are conceding to exceptionalism. The assumptions are not those of the campaigners, these are set by the Home Office, British Immigration Law and the political context within which the Home Secretary is operating. It is the duty of campaigners to make a compassionate case for leave to remain, even if there are no exceptional hardships. Forced deportation is a human tragedy in every case. Steve is not only wrong but also offensive to argue that where we campaign for individuals on compassionate grounds then we are implicitly arguing for others with less pressing misfortune to be expelled. This is like saying that when skilled workers campaign for higher wages that we are implicitly arguing for the less skilled to have a wage cut. It is simply nonsense. If we cannot win the cases with the strongest compassionate grounds, then we will not win any of them.


Steve makes a very weak point when he says: "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." The reality of Immigration Law is that people do not have a right to remain. Simply asserting that we do not consent to it gets us no-where. I personally think there should be open borders, and am prepared to campaign for that, but until we win open borders then we do indeed have to fight each individual case by justifying the reasons for that person remaining. The fight against immigration controls is not strengthened by us refusing to expose the human tragedy in its wake. We can challenge Immigration Law both in principle and by concretely arguing that every effected individual should be allowed to stay on compassionate grounds.


Steve is also dismissive of arguments that point out the poverty or lack of welfare and educational facilities in the countries to which the victims of deportation might be sent. He says this is stereotyping. However, inequality is a very hard reality. Had Mumtaz Begum been deported to Pakistan it is a fact that she would have been homeless, and without income or health care. There is inequality between welfare provision in Britain and Pakistan, and that is a very good reason for not sending a vulnerable and sick old woman out of Britain and to Pakistan. To argue that this is somehow encouraging prejudice against Pakistan is perverse. It is also a fact that the Ukrainian economy has collapsed since the introduction of free market reforms, while the Ukraine has not completely lapsed into what Steve describes as a "Natural state of primitive savagery", there are indeed thousands who subsist there with a debased existence scavenging from rubbish dumps, and others who sell their organs, and young women sold into sex slavery.


It is also true that children who have been educated in Britain, and for whom English has become their first language, may have severe difficulty in coping with the culture shock of returning to their country of birth, or of their parents' birth. Steve says this is "stereotyping", but it seems to me that he is so opposed to the use of compassion as an argument in these campaigns that he is suppressing his own compassion completely, and shutting his heart to the very real grief of dislocated children.


Steve argues that "compassionate grounds" weaken anti-deportation cases by creating a false "illusion of 'fair' or 'compassionate' controls", whereas success "requires a recognition that as stake here is a battle against the state and the entire state machine. the achievement of this recognition can only be helped by honest advocacy of abolition of all controls". This is fallacious because no anti-deportation campaign I know of has ever argued for fair immigration controls, they argue for the individuals under threat of deportation to be given leave to remain in the UK, which is not the same thing at all. Steve is I fear arguing against a straw man by saying that those who campaign against individual deportations using arguments relating to compassion are also arguing for compassionate immigration controls.


Current Immigration law requires us to argue compassionate reasons for leave to remain. What is more if individual anti-deportation campaigns are explicitly linked to the call for all immigration calls to be abolished then we will lose cases that could otherwise be won. In the years separating the two cases I have been involved with there has been a growing support network around the Lottery funded National Coalition of Anti -Deportation Campaigns, who produce excellent guides to campaigning, and allow the campaigners to support each other. I find offensive Steve's assertion that these campaigns (that have brought hope and in many cases secured leave to remain for  scores of people threatened with deportation) are high powered social work. These are hard won victories in the face  of a climate of racism and a ruthless state enemy.



September 2004


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