The new etiquette on asylum

The government's treatment of asylum seekers is far more offensive than its language.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
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Reproduced from Last Magazine, summer 2000

Where I live in east London, there are two posters currently doing the rounds. The first is shoddy and badly designed, stuck to bus-stops and telephone boxes, with the words ‘Don’t let these men play the race card’ above pictures of Tony Blair and William Hague. It was rushed out by an anti-racist organisation in the wake of accusations that the political parties were using ‘inflammatory language’ in the discussion about asylum seekers.

The second set of posters are far more pleasing to the eye: professionally designed, they show black celebrities such as pop star Des’ree and writer Meera Syal in support of Operation Black Vote. ‘Fifty percent of Newham and rising’ is the slogan, with the aim of encouraging more of Newham’s black and Asian communities to take part in local and national elections.

These posters capture something about the issue of race in New Britain. There is widespread concern that racism is rife, that political leaders and institutions such as the police, the courts and the army are having difficulty shaking off their racist heritage and adapting to the multicultural Britain of the twenty-first century. But at the same time, everybody from the Metropolitan police chief to a bigot like David Irving is bending over backwards to claim they are not racist, and that black people have a crucial role to play in modern Britain. So what’s the score?

When New Labour and the Tories were criticised on the asylum-seeker issue, it was more for their words than their deeds. Bill Morris, leader of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, accused the government of using ‘the language of confrontation’, of ‘giving life to the racists’ by making inappropriate comments. He went on to criticise Jack Straw’s proposals for how to deal with asylum seekers – including the suggestion that Indian visitors should pay a £10,000 bond to enter Britain – but said that ‘worse even than the content of these proposals has been the climate of fear and loathing that the Home Office has allowed to fester’.

Similarly, the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) took the government to task more for its choice of words than for its treatment of asylum seekers. Following a complaint from the Liberal Democrats’ Simon Hughes, the CRE urged political leaders to ‘reaffirm their commitment to obey a voluntary code on racial and religious tolerance’. Labour’s own parliamentary chairman Clive Soley also called for a more appropriate choice of words: ‘There has been some feeling that the language has not been as good as it could be. Most MPs accept that the government is going in the right direction but the problem is the words used get so caught up in focusing on illegal immigrants that no one sees the real hardship of refugees.’

It seems that the discussion around asylum seekers has less to do with improving the asylum seekers’ lot and creating a just society than with developing a new political etiquette, where you prove your worth by decrying racism and following the new anti-racist code. The demand is that we should use ‘appropriate language’ to discuss a heated issue like asylum seekers, rather than challenge the government’s treatment of asylum seekers as second-class citizens. As a result, the emphasis on minding your language and declaring your anti-racism can sit comfortably with continuing to treat asylum seekers appallingly.

Bill Morris may think that Jack Straw’s words are even worse than his deeds – some of us might disagree. Under New Labour’s Asylum and Immigration Act, detention facilities will be extended so that more asylum seekers can be incarcerated while their cases are being assessed, before being deported back to where they came from. There is also a proposal for dealing with asylum seekers who have been imprisoned as illegal immigrants – the Home Office can deny them the right to go for a bail hearing, instead getting a video link-up to a magistrate.

Things won’t be much better for asylum seekers who are lucky enough not to have been imprisoned. While the Home Office considers their applications, asylum seekers will be housed in cities across Britain, under the new policy of ‘dispersal’ (to avoid too high a ‘concentration’ of asylum seekers in one place), which will split families and friends apart. Even then, high-quality accommodation will be at the bottom of the authorities’ list of priorities: in Liverpool, for example, refugees have been housed in abandoned tower blocks, unfit for human habitation. Asylum seekers will be treated as outcasts in their new communities, with only £10 per week in cash benefits and having to live on vouchers specially issued by the Home Office, which they can exchange in shops for food and clothes. Oxfam has refused to take part in this ‘penny-pinching subsistence system’ which is ‘unreasonable, unfair and discriminates against those who are most vulnerable’.

Behind the cautions to mind your language when talking about asylum seekers, the government continues to treat them as second-class citizens. Shortly after his announcement in April that 3000 Kosovan refugees would be sent back to Kosovo, Jack Straw advised ministers to be careful in how they discuss such issues, pointing out that words like ‘bogus’ and ‘flood’ could be perceived as racist, and might ‘get in the way’ of the message. ‘If people feel that language is getting out of hand, then we ought to change their language’, he said. So it’s okay to send 3000 asylum seekers packing, as long as you’re polite and sensitive about it. And indeed, as long as the language of race is avoided, asylum seekers can be attacked explicitly: witness the accusations of child abuse levelled at Roma women begging on the Tube with their children in tow.

In New Britain, anti-racism is a misnomer. Behind the demands of the new etiquette and the fuss over ‘appropriate’ language, government ministers can get on with the job of keeping Britain closed to the wrong kind of people and making life difficult for those refugees allowed to stay.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

Asylum: the immigration laws are mad, by Mick Hume

The ‘s’ word, by Josie Appleton

Asylum: a bogus debate, by Josie Appleton

Asylum: enforcing discrimination, by Rob Lyons

Long arm of the Straw, by Josie Appleton

spiked-issue: Race

Reproduced from Last Magazine, summer 2000

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Topics Politics