Kenan Malik, Guardian, September 30, 2018
In the 1980s, a segregated housing system existed in Tower Hamlets, London. The better council estates were exclusively white; Bangladeshis, if housed at all, were pushed out into the most rundown areas. “Deliberate decisions must have been taken over which estates [Bangladeshis] were going to be ‘allowed’ to live on,” an investigation found in 1984.
Residents’ associations on the white-only estates promised trouble if Bangladeshis were moved in. That threat became the justification for council policy. Yet, as a 1983 report from the Spitalfields Housing and Planning Rights Service observed, it was the council’s discriminatory allocation system that gave white residents “the feeling they had the ‘right’ to keep their estates white”.
Now, 35 years later, consider what’s happening in the north-east. In June, the Labour MP for Sunderland East, Julie Elliott, wrote to the Home Office demanding “a temporary stop… on any new asylum seekers being allocated to the city of Sunderland”. A halt was necessary to ease “tensions” and so that “everyone can feel at ease in their neighbourhood and homes”.
The deputy leader of Sunderland city council, Michael Mordey, had previously written to the Home Office making the same demand. Both worry about the rise of the far right and of problems with “social cohesion”. There is some evidence that the Home Office has acceded to their demands.
It is true that grievances about housing and fears about crime rates can be transposed into anger towards asylum seekers. It is true, too, that locals have to be won over to defending asylum seekers’ rights. Yet, by preventing asylum seekers from coming to the north-east, Labour politicians and the Home Office are effectively giving the far right a veto on where they can be housed. Worse, they are using the far right as an excuse for their failure to challenge prejudices, and indeed for their adaptation to such prejudices. It’s an approach as shameful as the old Tower Hamlets policy.