Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union ( CPS ) speaking at Not One Day More demo, People's Assembly, London, July 2017 Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union ( CPS ) speaking at Not One Day More demo, People's Assembly, London, July 2017. Photo: Jim Aindow, Counterfire

The PCS union has threatened legal action over Home Office plans to make border agents carry out international-law-violating attacks on refugees, reports Floyd Codlin

Over the summer, the media was full of videos and pictures of small rubber dinghies in the English Channel. Nick Hardinges of LBC, reported on 10 September that ‘the Home Secretary authorised Border Force staff to use turnaround methods for dinghies making the perilous journey across the often choppy waters.’ It was also noted in the same report that ‘Boris Johnson backed his colleague’s approach during Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, vowing to use “every possible tactic at our disposal” to put an end to the crisis.’

Lately, however, a most unlikely public-service body has taken a stand against the abject cruelty of Priti Patel, the Tory Home Secretary, wanting migrants drowning as her Christmas movie of choice, and that’s the UK Border Force, more specifically, PCS members in the organisation, who are considering legal action against the government. Let me now declare an interest, as I’m a member of PCS, both in the Culture and ARMS sections (Associate and Retired Members).

The fact of the matter is that Patel is effectively trying to make trade-union members complicit in murder, by stating that members of border force will be exempt from prosecution. This is an extraordinary, and indefensible, promise to make. It was the Nuremburg war-crimes trials after World War Two that established some basic principles of international law on state murder. The trials rejected Wehrmacht defences based on the excuse that “I was only following orders”. This became Principle Four of a set of criteria for trying war crimes drawn up by the United Nations’ International Law Commission.

International law

It seems that the PCS has a better grasp of international law than does the government. Rajeev Syal, in the Guardian on 14th November stated the PCS position as that:

‘Officers from the PCS union have said they are prepared to launch a high-court challenge to the lawfulness of Priti Patel’s plans. The home secretary has maintained that the tactic of intercepting and sending back boats to France would be within the law. Documents from the Home Office seen by the Guardian show that the government’s own lawyers have warned ministers that the tactic could lead to a legal challenge from a union or possible strike action.’

Furthermore, the Home Secretary was warned by legal advice that the government stood less than a 30% chance of defending such a challenge in court. Kevin Mills, the PCS lead for the Border Force was unequivocal when he said: “We have examined the possibility of launching a judicial review. PCS is in consultation with its members, and a number have raised direct concerns about the pushback tactic – the safety and if it is legal.”

Mills went on to say that if someone died, ‘it won’t be Priti Patel taking the body out of the water’. In what seems like a careful understatement of the gravity of the issues involved, he finished by saying that a promise of protection from prosecution would ‘not help our members’ mental health’.

Racism versus resistance

The outrage against PCS from the right was fairly swift on social media and was suitably nasty. This you would expect from those who habitually amplify anti-migrant rhetoric, such as the likes of Tom Hunt, the Tory MP for Ipswich, who has a track record in dog-whistle declarations attracting accusations of racism.

With more of a veneer of intellectual gravity, Frank Furedi, the erstwhile leftist turned right-wing libertarian, wrote in Spiked against the European Union’s ‘anti-border sentiment’, and effectively supported actions against refugees as ‘defending citizenship’. We have been here before quite recently. What Frank Furedi wrote has echoes of the Daily Mail arguing against Jewish Refugees in the 30s.

Sophie Brown in the Huffington Post on 31 July 2015, noted that comparisons ‘are being drawn between a 1938 Daily Mail article on German Jews entering the UK, and media coverage of the Calais migrant crisis 77 years later. With the headline “German Jews Pouring Into This Country”, the article warns of “aliens” entering the UK through the “back door”’.

Far from being ephemeral, however, this kind of commentary on refugees sets up a cycle of increasing viciousness and racism which leads the government to further push the envelope of brutality in the treatment of refugees and migrants. This ratchet effect must be opposed. Firstly, anti-racists need to repeat that migrants, refugees, or asylum seekers are not here to take ‘our jobs’, ‘our houses’, or ‘our schools’. Migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers are fleeing our bombs and bullets, our occupations of their countries, and our sanctions imposed on their economies. So, I say open the borders and let our sisters and brothers in.

What PCS have demonstrated is the role the labour movement can play in challenging the hostile environment and Tory authoritarianism. As the government continues its policies of racist scapegoating, of passing draconian legislation undermining civil liberties like the Police and Crime Bill, and making working people pay for their crisis, trade unionists and the wider social movements can be at the forefront of resisting them.

An opportunity to demonstrate our solidarity with refugees and migrants comes this Saturday 20 November 2021, with an emergency protest, Solidarity with refugees: No to fortress Europe, organised by the Stop the War Coalition, CND and Stand up to Racism. The racism of the British state and the European Union are two sides of the same coin, and must be jointly rejected.

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