Bob Hughes campaigns against the way asylum seekers are treated in the UK. It was one of his emails on the “Close Campsfield” mailing list that got me interested in writing about refugees. So I went to meet him, and found an optimistic and cheerfully furious man.
CC: Tell us about your work Bob. How did you get involved?
BH: It was in Bristol, about six years ago maybe. The issue was vouchers. They were giving refugees food vouchers instead of cash. So they were getting targeted at supermarkets – it was a very humiliating procedure. And we used to do pickets outside the supermarkets where asylum seekers were obliged to take these vouchers. I went along to these pickets with my heart in my mouth, thinking we were going to run into some real nasty racism. But not a bit of it. We had wonderful conversations, outside Tesco, with ordinary members of the public. And a great many people were just delighted to have somebody who was prepared to listen to the way they felt about the garbage that was coming out of the radio and the TV and the press. So it was really very reassuring. There seemed to be a strong groundswell of outrage about the way foreigners were being treated, which nobody else was articulating. We were the ones articulating it. And it does get articulated. The local press seems to reflect it. Because the local press have reporters who are actually in the community, they report on the local feelings and they can’t take this glib, rather superficial view that the headline writers on the nationals tend to take. So I find it very uplifting to be involved.
CC: Would it be fair to say that the closer you get to the British public, the better they look?
BH: Oh yes. Definitely. Even people that are quite strident, you can see that they’ve got real reasons to be angry. And sometimes you can turn the discussion around to what those real reasons are – which is to do with housing and health and education.
CC: Why do asylum seekers get the blame for society’s ills – for the lack of employment, for the crime?
BH: It comes very much from certain areas of the tabloid press. I shouldn’t attempt to speak for the people who do hate immigrants, but I suppose there must be a certain amount of envy involved at the bottom of society, because you do get immigrant groups moving in to an area and then they will do better than the indigenous people. And that’s because the foreigners who come tend to be people who’ve got some determination. It requires great determination to get to this country. And they’ve got that supportive network – that solidarity in their community that our people have not got. There’s been enormous investment in this country by its rulers in breaking up any shred of solidarity. And so it’s very easy to trigger resentment from people who really are at the bottom of the pile. When they see immigrants getting council houses, for example. But the root problem of course is that council houses aren’t getting built. Council houses are getting sold off. And it all started with Margaret Thatcher. And that’s an explanation it takes half a minute to get across to somebody in the street. Half a minute – that’s all it takes.
CC: An argument that’s often used against immigrant communities is that they don’t integrate with society.
BH: Well, the most non-integrated community we have in this country is the rich. They’ve got their own educational system, their own special way of speaking, their own clothes, their own special food. And as for integrating, gosh, they’d never be seen dead with you or me. They are the ones who won’t integrate, and they’re the ones who do the most damage by their refusal to integrate.
CC: Are you saying that once you take the tabloid pressure away, these immigrant communities start to look like more of an example than a threat, because they have the kind of social cohesion that’s been drummed out of white society?
CC: Which is interesting because you’re linking the race issue of immigration with the class issue that we have in this country. Do you see the tension at the bottom of the pile as a symptom of class struggle?
BH: Yes I do. And I think that one of the most dangerous things that asylum seekers can do is to tell this country what’s wrong with it. I know a number of people who now have refugee status and they describe their shock at the lack of solidarity between people, the lack of standing up for people who are downtrodden. There’s a woman from Sarajevo who was asked by people back in Yugoslavia whether there was a lot of crime in England. And she said yes, the worst crime in England is the poverty. You just wouldn’t believe how much poverty there is. And she saw it as a crime. And it is a crime. But you have to be brought up to it to accept it as being normal. And if somebody comes in and says, “that’s shit”, then they are a threat to the situation. Remember that we are among the world leaders in wealth inequality. And the other thing that we take for granted is our sheer isolation. The sheer privatisation of life in this country. The loneliness of life here. I have a friend who came here as a refugee from Iranian Kurdistan. And she had been imprisoned and tortured twice. She’d gone through the awful journey of escaping out of Iran. And she said she never once felt suicidal until she was living in England. The sheer loneliness of life in England – you just don’t get that from the TV. The TV doesn’t show you how lonely people are in this country. I think that different perspective explains why there might be so much prejudice towards immigrants. It’s like if you’ve ever worked in a really toxic workplace, where the bullying hierarchy is already well set-up, and then someone comes in whose mind hasn’t been fucked – well they get sacked within a couple of weeks, because they’re trouble. They’ll talk to people they shouldn’t talk to. They’ll give respect to people they shouldn’t give respect to. Part of this is about making people cheap. Part of this is about showing that human beings can be made worthless. Once upon a time we had hanging, drawing and quartering – public torturing and execution – to show what could be done to someone who stepped out of line. I think the way asylum seekers are treated is a very good way of demonstrating to the populace what it means to be made worthless.
CC: Like the Roman circus?
BH: Yes, it’s a good way of demonstrating power. An ordinary police officer can’t raid your home without a warrant but an immigration officer – any immigration officer at all – can sign the equivalent of an arrest warrant for a foreigner. He signs it directly on behalf of the Secretary of State.
CC: If – as you suggest – the detention system demonstrates the might of the state, then do you think there is a deliberate policy to make the asylum application process as protracted and as cruel as possible? Do you buy that?
BH: Yes I do. Because it’s done in a very systematic way. It’s not that the Prime Minister or the Secretary of state says “you must do this or that to them”. All they say is “we’ve got to be tough on them.” But then the whole way the system is structured means that the cruelty happens without an agenda. It looks after itself. For example, by having the detention centres run by private companies who employ staff who don’t speak the languages, who have no experience of understanding mental illness. It’s interesting to see how the cruelty happens, because in the detention centres you regularly meet staff who don’t seem at all bad. And the detainees themselves say “oh, he’s nice… that one over there is a racist but the others try to be decent to you.” But there’s a high level of self-delusion in these places. The detainees don’t want to muck things up for themselves. They’re so concerned to keep their noses clean – they to a pitiful extent believe in playing by the rules, and so they put on this brave appearance. A semblance of reasonable interaction is maintained between the guards and the detainees. The way it works is a mess and it’s hard to follow it back up the chain of command to see where the cruelty comes from. There’s no one directly saying to the guards “you must twist the handcuffs like this.” But the cruelty is required. That is public policy. We’re going to be tough.
CC: You are involved in campaigning, notably on the internet, for reform of the detention rules. What’s your prognosis? Are you optimistic that something is going to change?
BH: I’m enthusiastic about the internet as a medium for getting alternative views out, but no medium is as good as actually getting out there on the street and talking to people. In particular getting out there to try to stop deportations, to go banging on fences, to go telling people “that won’t do!” And you can’t predict what will happen. All I know is that for my own mental health I’ve got to do this. I’m not going to have my mind fucked by accepting this shit, basically. I know that as an individual it makes me stronger and healthier when I take on this shit and call it by its name. [laughs] And I love it when it makes other people feel a little less burdened. Calling things by their proper names is really good for everybody. This country could turn into a little fascist Bantustan in ten years’ time – it’s thoroughly on the cards. It might be quite a good place to get away from soon. Although unfortunately you can’t just shut the lid on England. In history it’s always been a bit of a pandora’s box. But when things change, they change totally. It’s like a ship turning over. It goes very very very slowly at first, and then all of a sudden it’s upside down with its keel in the air. Some old parliamentarian once used the analogy of pulling a brick across a table with an elastic band. It doesn’t move for ages… and then all of a sudden it knocks your teeth out! [laughs] And I feel that political change, when it comes, comes like that.
CC: So you think the campaigning is effective?
BH: Yes. Take the issue of food vouchers for refugees. That got stopped [and replaced with a cash allowance]. And I’m sure our campaigning had an effect. They never said “oh we stopped that because a lot of people were complaining about it” – they would never say that – so you never see the causal chain. I think that people who’ve been campaigning for a very long time can get dispirited because they don’t see anything happening – but things can suddenly happen. It may be that two years down the line, the Daily Mail will be totally quiet about all this. I do believe that if we have an effect it will be a big effect. It won’t be a gradual, incremental thing.
CC: But you do see a good outcome. You are positive about people. You believe that people’s minds can be changed in a constructive way if they’re given the right information?
BH: I don’t think it’s about changing people’s minds. I think it’s about helping them to articulate what’s in their own minds already. You must understand that, as a writer. The Daily Mail’s doing the easy job. They’re articulating anger. Something unsubtle, something easy – you can turn it around in a day, that’s their job. That’s their agenda, to generate this hatred. But there’s not enough of us doing the same thing with human dignity; trying to articulate fundamental human decency and respect and dignity. It’s a matter simply of getting a critical mass of people talking in those terms and saying “no! no! We’re not having this!”. Human dignity is what matters.
CC: Bob Hughes, thank you very much.
BOB HUGHES FACTFILE