New Year

December 31, 2008 at 5:00 pm | Posted in Misc. | 1 Comment

There were a number of choices I could’ve picked for my New Year’s Eve song, but the chorus of this tune by The Mountain Goats seems a pretty fitting resolution: “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me”

Anyway, thanks to all who’ve been able to stomach this blog for its 10 months in existence, and I hope you all have a pleasant New Year. I’ll resume blogging within the next few days.

Picture by Flickr user Mr Magoo ICU (Creative Commons)

Proportion and Hypocrisy

December 31, 2008 at 4:14 pm | Posted in International | Leave a comment

Back on Gaza for a moment, and the bloggers at the right-wing Commentary magazine have been predictably supportive of Israel’s actions and trenchantly critical of its critics, particularly those who condemn the bombings as ‘disproportionate’. Here, Michael J. Totten argues that a ‘proportionate’ response would, on practical terms alone, achieve nothing, whilst J.G. Thayer dismisses it as a horrific fallacy.

I’m bound to disagree with these men over whether the scale of the military assault is justified and I still can’t see how Israel will achieve any long-term security objectives, other than perhaps demonstrating the extent of their arsenal. However, I do share a slight cringe whenever the word ‘disproportionate’ is used to describe these events. More often than not, the people who use that adjective never articulate some ‘proportionate’ alternative, or explain how they might achieve their objectives through ‘proportionate’ means. No, it’s normally used by people who believe that Israel has the right to defend itself, but can’t articulate how Israel should defend itself. That doesn’t preclude you from speaking out, of course, but it does suggest you should find a different adjective.

That said, you can’t argue that proportionality doesn’t apply and then write something like this about liberal magazine The Nation‘s fundraising appeal for victims of the Gaza attacks:

Apparently the sympathy of The Nation, which loves to wallow in the perceived victimhood of every imaginable “marginalized” group, doesn’t extend to Jews.

Sorry, but if you’re going to describe the argument that Israel’s attacks are ‘disproportionate’ as a ‘horrific fallacy’, you can’t then moan when charity is disproportionately aimed at Palestinians. At least, not if you want to look consistent.

What Makes a Conservative?

December 31, 2008 at 11:28 am | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party | Leave a comment

We’ve approached the time of year when grown adults like to set aside large parts of the day just to make lists. We list the best/worst things to have happened to us, the best/worst things we have bought, our top 10 love/hate figures or our highest/lowest expectations for the year to come. In this same spirit, ToryHome have decided to list what makes a conservative. It’s a fairly innocuous, predictable read, but alongside statements which veer from vague (“Taxation has dynamic effects”) to platitudinous (“Love of country is fundamental to all conservatism”) to downright cryptic (“Man is a fallen creature”), they include this:

Economic liberalism needs social conservatism

Well, I can understand why, in the interests of coalition building, you’d want the flat-taxers in the same boat as the flat-earthers, but their agendas are far less aligned than this five word declaration makes out.

In its fullest expression, social conservatism is restrictive and censorious: it burns ‘heretical’ literature, pickets outside theatres, demands the banning of video games and enforces prohibition of gambling and recreational substances. Classic economic liberals would balk at such authoritarian measures because people should be allowed the freedom to consume what the market provides. No true classicist would want the state to subsidise marriage, and some would even consider abandoning the expensive, losing ‘war on drugs’.

At their core, social conservatives believe unfettered markets can be damaging, and economic liberals stand against against restrictions on markets. Sure, with lashings of compromise and a moderate, piecemeal application of both sides’ agendas, they can often play along nicely, but to suggest some kind of symbiotic relationship between the two is just daft.

Grounds for Arrest

December 31, 2008 at 11:28 am | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment

This New Year, I hope Steven Gerrard will be doing a lot of soul-searching. One of the details to have emerged since his arrest is truly shocking:

One report suggested Gerrard and a group of his friends were involved in an altercation after the man refused to allow them to choose the songs played on the venue’s sound system. Gerrard is a big fan of Phil Collins and counts the singer’s greatest hits as his favourite album. He is also partial to Coldplay.

Phil Collins?!! If that’s not grounds for arrest, then I don’t know what is. Stevie, you’re a role-model for millions of young kids; they deserve better than this.

Christopher Booker’s scientific credentials

December 31, 2008 at 12:39 am | Posted in Climate Change | 1 Comment

Polar bear: "thank you Christopher Booker!"

Rejoice, people! Whatever you may’ve read, however many chilling predictions you may have heard, however frequently Al Gore might haunt your dreams, telling you that the world will end in a torrent of fire because YOU don’t use energy-saving lightbulbs, I can promise that all those fears are unfounded. For as people across the world glance at 2009 with such foreboding and dread, Christopher Booker has made the jolly discovery that instead of getting much, much worse, climate change doesn’t actually exist all!

Now, I understand that there’s a great deal of misinformation out there in BlogLand, and since I’m not a scientist (well, neither is he, but he sure seems to know a lot more than ‘real scientists’), I have to make sure that all my sources are of the highest calibre. So I did whatever any forensic time-deprived blogger would do, and checked him out on Wikipedia. Without further ado, and just to show how seriously you should take his scientific acumen, here are some of Booker’s greatest hits:

Booker’s articles in The Daily Telegraph on asbestos and also on global warming have been challenged by George Monbiot in an article in The Guardian [1].

Booker’s scientific claims, which include the false assertion that white asbestos (chrysotile) is “chemically identical to talcum powder” [2] were also analysed in detail by Richard Wilson in his book Don’t Get Fooled Again (2008). (The chemical formula for talc is H2Mg3(SiO3)4 or Mg3Si4O10(OH)2, while the formula for chrysotile, the primary ingredient of white asbestos, is Mg3(Si2O5)(OH)4).

Wilson highlighted Christopher Booker’s repeated endorsement of the alleged scientific expertise of John Bridle, who has claimed to be “the world’s foremost authority on asbestos science”, but who in 2005 was convicted under the UK’s Trade Descriptions Act [3] of making false claims about his qualifications, and who the BBC has accused of basing his reputation on “lies about his credentials, unaccredited tests, and self aggrandisement”.[4].

Christopher Booker’s scientific claims about asbestos have been criticized several times by the UK government’s Health and Safety Executive. In 2002, the HSE’s Director General, Timothy Walker, wrote that Booker’s articles on asbestos had been “misinformed and do little to increase public understanding of a very important occupational health issue.”[5].

In 2005, the Health and Safety Executive issued a rebuttal[6] after Christopher Booker wrote an article suggesting, incorrectly, that the HSE had agreed with him that white asbestos posed “no medical risk”[7].

In 2006, the HSE published a further rebuttal[8] after Christopher Booker had claimed, again incorrectly, that the Health and Safety Laboratory had concluded that the white asbestos contained within “artex” textured coatings posed “no health risk”. [9].

In May 2008, the Health and Safety Executive accused Booker of writing an article that was “substantially misleading”[10]. In the article[11], published by the Sunday Telegraph earlier that month, Booker had claimed, falsely, that a paper produced in 2000 by two HSE statisticians, Hodgson and Darnton[12], had ‘concluded that the risk of contracting mesothelioma from white asbestos cement was “insignificant”, while that of lung cancer was “zero”‘.

In December 2008, an article by Booker was published in The Daily Telegraph, ‘Facts melted by ‘global warming”[13] and subsequently in The Australian, ‘More inconvenient cold weather, snow and polar ice’.[14] The article claims that “Without explanation, a half million square kilometres of ice vanished overnight.” That claim is false as an explanation was provided on 13 December and Booker’s article was published on 21 December.[15]

If this doesn’t persuade you that everything the guy writes should be trusted, nothing will!

Anyway, if it’s really that easy to get a newspaper column to write about subjects you know nothing about, I think it’s time to get myself some of that. From now on, all of the posts on this blog will be detailed discussions about global economics. Granted, I have no academic training or related work experience, and some of my more controversial pronouncements (like ‘Capitalism Makes You Impotent!’ or ‘Marxism Clears Blotchy Skin!’) are based on flawed or fabricated evidence. But just like Booker can claim that cold winters disproves global warming, so I can claim that my lack of money proves the inherent evil of capitalism. Now all I need is for someone to hire me because, regardless of my rare imperfections, I’ll tell them everything they want to hear.

Form a queue people, and I’ll start reviewing job offers in the new year.

(By the way, if you want, y’know, a scientific rebuttal of Booker’s piece rather than just endless snark, here’s a good place to start)

Emboldening the Enemy

December 30, 2008 at 10:41 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

In the Washington Post, Daoud Kuttab explains Palestinian politics prior to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and speculates that the bombing has been a ‘bonanza for Hamas’, increasing its standing both internally and within the region.

The lack of international support since the 2006 elections, followed by this rebuff to Gaza’s only Arab neighbor, Egypt, compounded the deterioration of Hamas’s internal support. By November, the survey showed, only 16.6 percent of Palestinians supported Hamas, compared with nearly 40 percent favoring Fatah. The decline in support for Hamas has been steady: A year earlier, the same pollster showed that Hamas’s support was at 19.7 percent; in August 2007, it was at 21.6 percent; in March 2007, it was at 25.2 percent; and in September 2006, backing for the Islamists stood at 29.7 percent.

That’s why, as the six-month cease-fire with Israel came to an end, Hamas calculated — it seems correctly — that it had nothing to gain by continuing the truce; if it had, its credentials as a resistance movement would have been no different from those of Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah. Unable to secure an open border and an end to the Israeli siege, while refusing to share or give up power to Abbas, Hamas could have had no route to renewed public favor.

For different reasons, Hamas and Israel both gave up on the cease-fire, preferring instead to climb over corpses to reach their political goals. One side wants to resuscitate its public support by appearing to be a heroic resister, while the other, on the eve of elections, wants to show toughness to a public unhappy with the nuisance of the Qassam rockets.

The disproportionate and heavy-handed Israeli attacks on Gaza have been a bonanza for Hamas. The movement has renewed its standing in the Arab world, secured international favor further afield and succeeded in scuttling indirect Israeli-Syrian talks and direct Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. It has also greatly embarrassed Israel’s strongest Arab neighbors, Egypt and Jordan.

Elsewhere, Rami Almeghari writes from the ground in Gaza:

Some food shops and bakeries are open, but just for a few hours a day. They take whatever opportunity they can to make bread for the people. This morning I went to a bakery in the nearby Nusseirat refugee camp to try to by bread for my children and family. They said, “There is no bread right now, maybe after 8pm.” They are waiting for the electricity to come back so they can bake.

Over the past two days there have been some food shipments into the Gaza Strip, but in very limited quantities — much much less than can meet the needs of 1.5 million people. The average household here has seven or eight persons, so the need is very great.

You cannot find any presence of the government here now. Most of the government buildings have been destroyed by Israeli warplanes. For example the whole compound of ministerial buildings in Gaza City — including the ministries of finance, interior, education and others — has been completely destroyed.

These are not “terrorist” or military sites. These were civilian buildings that served the population in civil matters. They had nothing to do with any military purposes as Israel always claims. Even the police stations they have been targeting over the past few days, were just civil police stations, guarding security of the people, dealing with traffic and so on. The people working in those police stations were just previously unemployed youths who took the opportunity to make a living and feed their families.

Israel bombed the Hamas-run al-Aqsa TV station, but just one hour ago on al-Aqsa TV a masked spokesman from the Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, spoke live from a hidden location. And despite the repeated attacks by the Israelis, the firing of rockets is still going on into Israel. So Israel has not hit Hamas. It has hit the civilian population.

But Hamas, you suspect, will be the beneficiaries of all this.

A Case in Point

December 30, 2008 at 10:40 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

As if to underscore my earlier point, compare this:

The NHS in England could save more than £2bn (€3bn; $3.7bn) a year through better productivity and efficiency, says the Department of Health.

Potential savings calculated from the figures for the first quarter of the financial year 2006-7 include £975m by reducing variation in length of hospital stays; £510m by reducing use of beds before operations; £348m by reducing emergency admissions; and £278m by reducing variation in outpatient referrals.

The biggest potential savings lie in discharging patients earlier, and the data show that several hospitals could save more than £10m each if they matched the performance of the top 25%. University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust is listed as having the biggest potential savings: £17.9m.

With this:

Ministers are planning to force GPs to improve their performance by posting patients’ comments about them on an NHS website, the Guardian can reveal.

Ben Bradshaw, the health minister, wants to make it easy for patients in England to rate their family doctor’s competence and bedside manner on bulletin boards on the NHS Choices website. Officials have been told to have the appropriate software ready next year.

He hopes consumer power will make GPs offer a better service for fear that as patients may switch to another practice with better website reviews.

Now, we should include the caveat that the BMJ article is specific to hospital care and the Guardian piece relates to GPs, but you can still see the existence of two different and seemingly contradictory trends. On the one hand we have a government taking a much greater interest in a patient’s satisfaction with their care, which all the talk of ‘compassion’ in the earlier post is related to, and on the other we have this perpetual efficiency drive, born out of a need to reduce waste and an attempt to ensure that funding cuts won’t have a detrimental impact on frontline services.

There are going to be times, of course, when these trends aren’t contradictory; those with busy schedules, for example, will be thankful for reduced waiting times before and after having an operation. But there will be many occasions when a patient’s expectations of the care they receive is far higher than the care a hospital wants/is able to provide. Under those conditions, care provision and patient satisfaction seem irreconcilable, which makes me wonder why the government regards it as so important.

Healthcare: Quality vs Quantity

December 30, 2008 at 10:40 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The NHS is losing its compassion, according to leading health think tank The King’s Fund:

There has been a deterioration in the level of compassion in the NHS in recent years, the head of a leading health think-tank has told the BBC.

The King’s Fund is running a special project to try to get nurses and other staff to focus on being compassionate.

Its chief executive, Niall Dickson, said this was a fundamental issue that should be a top priority for every hospital board.

[...]

Mr Dickson said: “I have very little doubt that we’ve seen a deterioration in the level of compassion that is shown by staff to patients.

“It’s to do with staff facing very difficult situations – because patients are sicker and hospital stays are shorter – rather than them all turning into nasty people.

“If we can’t get compassion into our healthcare, the system is failing. It’s as fundamental as that.

This raises a number of problems. First, as the accompanying discussion on the Today programme pointed out, it’s incredibly difficult to measure compassion, and probably impossible to do so objectively. You could have two patients with the exact same ailments treated in the exact same way by the same nurse or doctor and it’s still likely that their experience of the care they’ve received will be different. An NHS hospital might be blessed with a remarkably caring, selfless and popular nurse, but some patients might still find him/her too fussy or intrusive and prefer to be left alone. Patients are bound to want very different things from their healthcare, and it won’t always be possible to (a) know what those expectations are, and (b) meet those expectations.

Next, assuming you ever get over the hurdle of measuring compassion in the first place, and can somehow identify which parts of the health service are deficient, do we possess the resources to put things right? If this lack of compassion is a failure on the part of staff, you’d think the most obvious remedy would be to increase staffing numbers, introduce kinder working hours and more generous pay and holidays. That way doctors and nurses would have more time to spend with their patients and more energy to deal with the rigours of the working day.

But there’s no money for that under the NHS’ current funding, particularly when PCTs are trying to find efficiency savings across the board. So it’s worth asking, I think, whether ‘compassion’ is necessarily compatible with ‘efficiency’. When healthcare professionals are under pressure to meet local and national targets, there’s naturally going to be an emphasis on quantity of care over quality, and I suspect most people would rather be dealt with in a rather brisk and impersonal manner than be lavished with attention but have to wait a lot longer to be seen. Nurses could devote more time to consoling or reassuring their patients, but that’ll inevitably mean fewer patients being seen or result in administrative/housekeeping tasks not being done.

When you have resources as finite as the NHS there are inevitably going to be trade-offs, and when your main focus is on the volume of care, it seems inevitable that the provision of ‘compassion’, however you choose to define or measure it, will be compromised.

Nothing Gets Crossed Out

December 29, 2008 at 6:45 pm | Posted in International | Leave a comment

In a sense, writing about the troubling developments in Gaza is somewhat counter-intuitive. Sure, I can blog my way through some general observations about British & American politics or the broad principles of the debate on climate change, but in so far as I have a niche, many of my posts dwell on domestic social policy. This is convenient for me because whilst you do have to flick through a daunting number of dry reports, it’s still relatively easy to diagnose problems and propose solutions. How do we treat asylum seekers better? You start by giving them the right to work & having their claims heard by independent, specially-trained magistrates. How do we improve our care for victims of domestic violence? You start by investing in more rape crisis centres and a national hotline. How do we reform our criminal justice system to prevent people from being led on the path of perpetual crime? You start by introducing an independent sentencing commission, building smaller prisons and improving prison education & drug treatment. Problem, solution.

On the Middle East, of course, that kind of analysis isn’t possible, and even the smartest commentators are struggling to articulate anything beyond noting the rights or wrongs of the carnage currently being visited on Gaza. Part of the reason for that, I think, is neither Israel or Hamas’ actions can be seen as working towards either side’s long-term objectives. Nobody has adequately explained to me how even the deadliest, most accurate strikes against Hamas leadership will lead to long-term security for those Israelis who live under threat of bombardment, and you’d really struggle to make a case that Hamas’ reckless missile-hurling serves any positive function towards freedom for the Palestinians. So if neither side seems capable of acting in their own-long term interests, the task falls to those of us made nauseous by the death and suffering to try to act as a restraining or enabling influence.

I’ve read a number of very good, serious and humane posts about the crisis, but what puts this post by Daniel Levy above the others is that he manages to articulate a constructive way the international community can engage in the region. I’d advise reading the whole thing, but this is the key section.

Just as in 2006, Israel needs the international community to be its exit strategy – and there is no time to waste. Even what appears as a short-term Israeli success is likely to prove self-defeating over a longer time horizon and that effect will intensify as the fighting continues. Over time, immense pressure will also grow on the PA in Ramallah, on Jordan, Egypt and others to act and their governments will be increasingly uneasy. Demonstrations across the West Bank are calling for a halt to all Israeli-Palestinian talks and for Palestinian unity.

If the U.S. is indifferent or still under the neocon ideological spell then Europe, the rest of the Quartet, Arab States and other internationals must act – with a variety of players using leverage with Israel and Hamas to de-escalate. Escalation poses dangers at a humanitarian and regional-political level. International leaders should head to the region before the new year, even if the warring parties discourage it, and for some of them Gaza must be on the itinerary, the boycott (anyway unwise) is a secondary matter now. High-level visits in themselves can create a de-escalatory dynamic.

Both sides will want to land the final big punch and both will need a dignified narrative for home consumption – any ceasefire deal will have to take this into account (and this during an Israeli election campaign, with violence usually helping the right, and the centrist government desperate for an image make-over after that Lebanon 2006 debacle).

The obvious ingredients will have to be creatively re-configured for this to be possible, including ending rocket fire at Israel and removing the blockade on Gaza. New ingredients may also be necessary and while extending the ceasefire to the West Bank is (unfortunately) probably out of the question, it might be possible this time to establish a monitoring mechanism for the ceasefire. Such a mechanism could serve both sides’ interests (Israel gets a more solid guarantee, Hamas gets more recognition). There is a precedent for this – after the April 1996 Israel-Hezbollah conflict a formal Ceasefire Understanding was reached that included the establishment of a Monitoring Group consisting of the U.S., France, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel (with Syria basically acting as guarantor for Hezbollah). That mechanism proved useful and met with constructive IDF cooperation – something similar might be needed now.

In addition efforts need to be revived for achieving Palestinian national reconciliation (which itself could ease the management of the Gaza situation) and for allowing Gaza greater access to the outside world through Egypt via the Rafah border crossing.

But there is a bigger picture – and it is staring at the incoming Obama administration. Today’s events should be ‘exhibit A’ in why the next U.S. Government cannot leave the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to fester or try to ‘manage’ it – as long as it remains unresolved, it has a nasty habit of forcing itself onto the agenda. That can happen on terms dictated to the U.S. by the region (bad) or the U.S. can seek to set its own terms (far preferable). The new administration needs to embark upon a course of forceful regional diplomacy that breaks fundamentally from past efforts. A consensus of sorts is emerging in the U.S. foreign policy establishment that this conflict needs to be resolved – evidenced in the findings of a recent Brookings/Council of Foreign Relations Report or the powerful statements coming from elder statesmen like Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, themselves building on the findings of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group. It will require tenacity and bold ideas – in framing the solution, bringing in previously excluded actors, creating mechanisms to implement a deal (such as international forces) and utilizing the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative – but the alternative is far worse, its what we see today and it guarantees ongoing instability in a region of paramount importance to the United States.

This might seem a strange time to slip in an indie rock reference, but there’s a line in a Conor Oberst song where he groans of “making these to-do lists, but nothing gets crossed out”. Reading the news this past year, you can see what he means. We’re living through the most severe economic crisis most of us have ever known. We’re inhabiting a planet undergoing a climate crisis which could claim countless lives, an energy crisis which has us consuming resources we can’t replenish, and a food crisis in which population growth is outstripping production. We have unresolved, life-sapping conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ominous prospect of two nuclear powers squaring off in the Indian subcontinent, and there are human rights sins being committed daily against women in Saudi Arabia, gays in Iran, democrats in Zimbabwe, workers in the UAE and just about everyone in Burma and North Korea. The to-do list mounts by the day and nothing ever gets crossed out.

My point is that if we want to look back at 2009 with greater fondness than the year before, we need a renaissance in internationalism to meet these mounting challenges. No one country can resolve these emergencies by itself, and whilst the election of Barack Obama might help galvanise the effort towards global solutions, the international community certainly can’t afford to wait for America to take the lead. Only with a combined, multi-national effort will we ever inch towards crossing these crises off an ever-growing global ‘to do’ list, and whilst that might sound incredibly trite as a piece of ‘serious’ analysis, as a New Year’s Resolution, I can think of nothing better.

Either/Or

December 29, 2008 at 6:45 pm | Posted in International, Media | Leave a comment

I know I’m still meant to be doing the ‘festive cheer’ thing, but reporting like this never fails to annoy:

Obama has given no hint so far on his policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though he has said finding a peace plan will be an early priority of his administration.

Before running for president, he aired opinions in his home town, Chicago, strongly sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians, incurring suspicion among Israelis and some US Jewish groups.

But after winning the Democratic nomination earlier this year he veered in the other direction, voicing strong support for Israel in a speech in Washington to the Israeli lobby group AIPAC.

Look, I’ll accept that there are many ‘known unknowns’ over how an Obama administration will react to the conflict – that’s one of the unfortunate consequences of not being President yet. However, voicing sympathy for the plight of Palestinians and also claiming to be a strong supporter of Israel is not in any way contradictory, as this piece implies. You could, in fact, argue that Israel’s ‘strongest’ supporters are those who realise that these military actions might be effective in achieving some short-term security objectives, but contribute nothing towards its long-term peace and stability.

Having some measure of empathy for an impoverished and desperate Palestinian people does not mean fawning over Hamas, nor does it signal a belief that Israel should start coddling those who want only to kill. Equally, believing Israel has a right to exist and to defend itself against external threats does not mean endorsing or acquiescing to its self-destructive, militaristic excesses.

What that part of the world needs more than anything is someone capable of viewing foreign policy challenges with a little more nuance than simply reducing everything into a pair of binary oppositions. I think all sides had better hope that an Obama administration has that ability.

No room at the inn

December 27, 2008 at 10:30 pm | Posted in Asylum, British Politics | 1 Comment

border-control

You’ll have to forgive the wonkish legalese, but there’s a principle in international law called non-refoulement, which forbids the expulsion of refugees back to states where they might be subjected to persecution. Deeply ingrained within the 1951 UN convention (of which Britain is a signatory), it arose from the widely-felt shame of failing to provide an adequate safehaven from Nazi genocide, and a resolve that it must never happen again.

Increasingly, though, it’s hard to reconcile our country’s commitment to this deeply important principle with the reality of our actions. Nearly two weeks ago I wrote about the Centre for Social Justice’s report into the gross incompetencies within our asylum system, and noted how the process could become both more efficient and more humane. But whilst that report was laudable for its strong and constructive criticism, it only noted the injustices which face those ‘lucky’ enough to enter the country. In fact, as the Refugee Council reports, our mistreatment of refugees extends beyond our borders.

In recent years, Labour’s worked under the assumption that the best way of dealing with immigrants and refugees is to stop them from even getting on a plane. To do this, the state relies on its immigration controls being implemented in foreign countries – partly by public servants who’re ‘posted’ abroad, but mostly by employees of private airlines and security companies. None of these people are tasked with or trained in refugee protection; they don’t know how to identify refugees and ensure their safety, because their priority is to stop them from entering Britain in the first place. Private airlines routinely refuse boarding to any passenger suspected of seeking asylum, and there is a complete lack of transparency over how they make their decisions.

This outsourcing of immigration control makes it exceptionally difficult for genuine refugees to take safe routes into the country, and since their fear of persecution is no less real, many are forced to seek more hazardous ways of getting here. The report sheds light on the desperate, life-risking routes some refugees have to take, and describes the trauma of dealing with smugglers, travelling through lawless zones and encountering border guards, particularly for women and children.

But the main consequence of our government’s policy of ‘intercepting’ asylum seekers is that it means most refugees face one of two outcomes. The ‘lucky’ ones remain in a state of perpetual transit; unable to return home, they’re forever knocking on the door of ‘Fortress Europe’ and seeking ever more desperate – and dangerous – ways of sneaking in unnoticed. Meanwhile, those who aren’t so lucky risk being swept up in a system of deportations which will eventually lead them back to the country they first fled.

In many small, bureaucratic ways, we have eroded and undermined our 60-year-old commitment to providing refuge for victims of violence and persecution; whilst we still claim to abide by the high principles of international law, the obstacles we place in refugees’ paths are often too difficult to overcome. In this supposed season of reflection, we should ponder what it says about Labour as a political party, and Britain as a country, that we’ve allowed it to happen.

This is a follow-up to a previous post, Restoring Dignity for Asylum Seekers, which you can find here.

Selected Reading

December 27, 2008 at 10:22 pm | Posted in Misc. | 5 Comments
  • What to make of the situation in Gaza, other than a lot of hand-wringing and exasperation? Well, there are some noteworthy initial reactions courtesy of Foreign Policy Watch, Noah Pollak, Shmuel Rosner, Abu Aardvark, M.J. Rosenburg and Matthew Yglesias.
  • In other “how can we make 2009 even worse than 2008?” news: “Pakistan readies for war with India
  • Looks like Caroline Kennedy may have some competition for that Senate seat, though her challenger – who does possess such trivial attributes as experience and a progressive track record – doesn’t have a glitzy surname. Which means he’s doomed, obviously. Meanwhile, Steve Clemons accidentally (and unintentionally) insults us limeys by suggesting Obama appoint her the next British ambassador. Would someone remind me what experience she has for that job?
  • Joseph Romm explains how you can stimulate an economy with green buildings.
  • At The Curvature, Cara continues her quite brilliant feminist analysis of Yoko Ono…
  • …And at Feministe brings us one of the most unintentionally funny videos I’ve watched in ages.
  • Jeremy Sare writes about the case of Priviledge Thulambo and her daughters, who will be deported from Britain on Monday unless the state discovers its humanity.

Rinsing the recession

December 26, 2008 at 4:05 pm | Posted in Sheffield | Leave a comment

It’s an interesting challenge for town planners: when a recession is laying waste to your city’s businesses, stalling new developments and generally making the place look untidy, how do you work to attract new investment in the face of greater stagnation and inactivity? Well, Sheffield Council has come up with one idea:

IMAGES of Sheffield are being used to brighten up the city centre as more properties fall vacant, waiting for redevelopment.

Hoardings are being erected around buildings due to be demolished to make way for the £600m Sevenstone retail quarter between Barkers Pool, Pinstone Street and Moorhead.

They will have green vinyl frontages with framed images of Sheffield, designed by the council to give a uniform and tidy impression during the wait for the bulldozers

It’s a good idea. Sure, it’s hardly going to mask an abandoned building site or a block of disused offices, but it could at least give both residents and would-be investors a peak at what the city looks like at its best. Because, as these images show, the place can look awfully pretty.


Images taken from the excellent Paolo Màrgari (Creative Commons)

Poetry in taxation

December 26, 2008 at 11:47 am | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment

‘Tis the season for daft games, so over at The Guardian, they’re asking their CiF writers to play a version of charades. The premise is pretty simple: each writer has to produce a piece on a ‘counter-intuitive’ subject suggested by their readers, so feminist & trade union activist Cath Elliott writes about her love of Take That, Labourite Rupa Huq evangelizes Bulgarian turbo-folk and Michele Hanson discusses quantum physics. The pick of the bunch, though, is Ariane Sherine’s lyrical (and terrifically funny) attempt at writing about tax:

They say that tax shouldn’t be taxing
But blogging it’s far from relaxing
Cif said “Make it funny!”
(Re. tax, VAT and money)
I’d rather perform scrotum waxing

It’s truly a troublesome chore
To make tax sound less of a bore
To wring out its mirth
And prove my Cif worth
I’m banging my head on the floor

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Priscilla Ahn

December 26, 2008 at 11:34 am | Posted in Music, Art, Etcetera | Leave a comment

This song reminds me of a Dorothy Burnham quote: “She’s got that fey look as though she’s had breakfast with a leprechaun”. I suspect she could sing the welfare white paper and make even that sound beautiful:

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