Monday, 11 October 2010

Blaming asylum seekers will not tackle housing crisis

Earlier this year, the Red Cross described the way our immigration system treated those whose claims for asylum have been denied as 'shameful'. Birmingham City Council has now added to this catalogue of shame by its decision to cancel a contract with the UK Border Agency to house 190 asylum seekers.

“Asylum seekers last in the housing queue” said the Daily Mail as John Lines, the Cabinet Member for Housing, secured the headlines he wanted. But asylum seekers were never in the front of any queue, and are among the most desperate and destitute people in our society.

Birmingham has more than 65,000 council homes and only a tiny handful of these were used for the contract with the Border Agency. It is not true that asylum seekers ‘jump the queue’, and it is not true that Birmingham’s growing housing crisis is caused by asylum seekers.

The council's decision smacks of a political stunt. As the recession bites, we can expect a lot more of this kind of unscrupulous 'blame the victim' politics from the Tories and Lib Dems. We got a taster at the Tory conference with its creeping Victorian values of the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor. 

Thousands of people are having their homes repossessed as jobs are lost. What would make a difference to the homeless figures is if banks, bailed out by public money, were unable to turf families onto the streets if they couldn’t keep up mortgage payments. But politicians would rather play ‘blame the foreigner’ than ‘blame the banker’. 

What would make a difference to the housing crisis would be a government programme of house building, putting people back to work and boosting the economy. But with unemployment set to rise dramatically, and people losing their homes as a result, we can expect politicians to point the figure at anybody but themselves. 

Birmingham’s announcement will achieve next to nothing. With 30,000 people on the waiting lists, and thousands more set to will join them as public spending cuts bite, it is a drop in the ocean. What it will do is fan the flames of intolerance, bigotry and racism.  

Denying housing to a handful of desperate and destitute families is morally wrong. Birmingham claims to be a ‘global city with a local heart'. All this decision does is to make our city appear provincial, mean and heartless. 

There are different ways we can respond to this recession. One response, with a long and ugly pedigree, is to scapegoat the vulnerable, the weak, and those unable to defend themselves. The other is to challenge the economic madness of slashing public spending in the middle of a recession, and to challenge the political logic which says that ordinary people losing their jobs and homes is a price worth paying for the criminal recklessness of a rich elite in the financial sector.