Asylum: a bogus debate
Look at the figures - asylum seekers are not a problem.
Rather predictably, Conservative leader William Hague introduced the asylum issue into the 2001 election campaign with a speech in Dover on 18 May, claiming again that the UK has become a ‘soft touch’ for asylum seekers.
Home secretary Jack Straw responded with an interview for the Observer on 20 May to prove that the UK under New Labour was anything but a ‘soft touch’.
But what is the reality behind the fuss about asylum seekers?
Even though the numbers of asylum seekers have increased within the past few years, in real terms these numbers are very small. In 2000, 76,040 people claimed asylum. This is a fraction of the total numbers of immigrants to the UK that year (around 450,000) (1). It is an even smaller proportion of the total number of people claiming unemployment benefits (eight percent of around one million).
British shores are not under siege, British coffers are not being emptied. The political prominence of the asylum issue is not the consequence of any real problem or resource pressure presented by these people.
Yet the system for dealing with asylum seekers becomes tougher by the year. Each year, a smaller proportion of asylum applications are being granted. In 1985 around 80 percent of applicants were either given refugee status or exceptional leave to remain; by 2000 this had fallen to under 20 percent (2).
And all political parties agree that the system should be tougher still. In his Observer interview on 20 May, Jack Straw proposed a cap on the total number of refugees admitted each year. The Tories have proposed detention centres for all asylum seekers, on the basis that this will reduce the incentive for people to try to enter the UK.
The Refugee Council has argued that genuine asylum seekers are being turned away. This is no doubt the case, given the high number of applications that are refused on the grounds of ‘non-compliance’ (failure to complete a form properly in English, or failure to turn up for interviews at the appointed time), or because the UK was not the asylum seeker’s first safe port of call.
But the numbers of asylum seekers have almost tripled in recent years, from 29,650 in 1996, to 76,040 in 2000 (3). It is entirely possible that a proportion of this increase is due to people who simply want to get into Britain. Because the truth is that, unless you are rich enough to invest £100,000, or you are joining immediate family or have married a British person, there is simply no way to get into the UK to live.
In the past, to varying degrees, the UK allowed primary immigration from the third world. The increase in asylum applications began in the 1980s, with the tightening of immigration laws. Until that point, the numbers of asylum applications were so small that there had been no need for a formal asylum system.
It may be the case that, because our borders have been fortified, people in search of a better life for themselves today are forced to squeeze themselves into the box of the asylum seeker. But shouldn’t these much-maligned ‘economic migrants’ be entitled to seek to better their quality of life?
The process of proving you are an asylum seeker is degrading. It means you have to prove, before a court, the extent of your fear and suffering. And this must be proven in very narrow terms, on the basis of persecution by the state or its agencies for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.
Only those who manage to convince asylum court judges of the depths of their victimisation will be granted leave to remain. If, for example, a person was particularly courageous, and said that they were not afraid, but angry, when soldiers came to their house, this would be unlikely to help their case.
Perhaps the most bogus aspect of the asylum issue is the distinction between genuine asylum seekers and illegitimate economic migrants. Is suffering persecution any worse than suffering grinding poverty? And anyway, why should we decide who to accept on the basis of a quotient of suffering?
Instead of more draconian restrictions, UK immigration policy could do with the injection of a bit of common humanity.
Asylum: the immigration laws are mad, by Mick Hume
The ‘s’ word, by Josie Appleton
Asylum: enforcing discrimination, by Rob Lyons
Long arm of the Straw, by Josie Appleton
The new etiquette on asylum, by Brendan O’Neill
(1) From graph in Guardian 21 May 2001
(2) From graph in Guardian 21 May 2001
(3) Refugee Council press release, February 2001