The Daily Mail thinks that "soft touch Britain" is the victim of refugee terrorism and refugee crime. Everyone has heard the stories about asylum seekers receiving benefits, flash cars, living on the best estates. Shouldn't we just send all the refugees back? One MORI survey in May 2002 asked people what word the media used most when referring to asylum seekers and refugees. "Illegal immigrant" came top, with 64%, fol-lowed by 22% saying "bogus". One of the most common claims is that Britain is too soft. We make it easy for people to come here. Health, transport and education are crumbling. Shouldn't we look after our own? Meanwhile, the press has also made much out of the arguments between the government and the courts over asylum. The Express has accused "fat cat" lawyers of delaying refugee hearings, and making a mint for themselves along the way. News that refugees were challenging the terms of the 2002 Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act became, "Handouts are our right, say migrants".
When you get behind the headlines, you soon find out that refugees don't have it easy at all. Transport companies are fined if they bring people in without the right documents. Airlines have taken to removing people from flight lists, even ones with valid paperwork, rather than risk fines. The government has been trying to change the laws to force people to claim asylum before they leave. You can just imagine trying that in Iraq, or Zimbabwe, the two countries from which most people are fleeing now. "Excuse me please, is it OK if I defect?" Other categories of people are allowed to claim asylum once they've arrived in Britain. But if asylum seekers don't claim immediately, they can lose all entitlement to benefits. This last point has been the issue in a recent legal action. Justice Collins was asked to rule on whether it was fair that asylum seekers were being denied benefits because they claimed "late". The judge pointed out that the law bans asylum seekers from working. So if they don't get benefits, how are they supposed to live? He then looked at the cases in front of him. One of the people in court had been denied benefit because they applied for asylum on the afternoon rather than the morning of their very first day in Britain. What Justice Collins decided was that the Home Office needed to take more care with the law. Sure they could tell a failed asylum applicant that they couldn't receive benefits, but to penalise someone so severely for handing in a form five hours late - that seemed unfair.
The ruling was careful, patient, complex. The press coverage was simple, prejudiced and full of hate. The headline in The Sun was "Asylum Madness ... Blunkett Fury as Judge boots out New Asylum Law". The Home Office leaked its anger to the papers, giving anonymous quotes to anyone who asked. Long before the judge made a ruling, The Sun knew what it thought. They didn't even bother to send a journalist to get the facts of the case. But still they waded in. Asylum law has changed every year since 1997. As a result Britain is now much tougher than other Western countries in terms of whom it decides to accept. In 2001 the UK granted asylum to just 19% of people who applied from Afghanistan. In Canada over the same period 97% of Afghanis were allowed in. Somali applicants had a 92% success rate in Canada, while in Britain they had only a 34% chance of getting in. Eight-five per cent of Colombian applicants received protection in Canada, compared to just 3% here. Large numbers of refugees have been jailed on arrival, some in de facto prisons, such as the Campsfield detention centre near Oxford, others in actual jails, including HMP Walton in Liverpool. Whole categories of refugees have been denied the right to claim asylum en bloc, so that they could not be given the right to remain, no matter how harsh their lives had been back home.
Tens of thousands of refugees have been deported. Legal support is stretched beyond break point. Most subjects of judicial hearings do not have the power or the resources to take an appeal very far. Instead, they are forced to accept Home Office decisions: that the torture they had experienced was only mild and not enough to justify asylum; that the war they fled was only one in which thousands died and so was not genocide; or that they could not really fear assassination back home as they had not yet been killed. Asylum Aid quotes one typical Home Office letter on its website: "You state that the men drove you to a place one and a half hours away and told you to run before they opened fire on you. The Secretary of State considers that if they had intended to kill you, they would have done so straight away rather than give you a chance to escape." That's the attitude asylum seekers have to deal with. Why is it that a Labour government is so determined to persecute the most vulnerable people? Why is that the press are so willing to follow the story to its end, even if it means telling lies on a mass scale? People will have different answers depending on how much they trust Rupert Murdoch or Tony Blair. The rest of us are faced with one simple choice: either we decide to place our trust in the hands of the Home Office, the state officials and the millionaire bosses of the tabloid papers, or we say to refugees "you're welcome here".
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.