Asylum: enforcing discrimination

Are tougher asylum laws just common sense?

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Topics Politics

On the one side Conservative Leader William Hague argues that Britain is becoming a ‘soft touch’ for ‘bogus’ asylum seekers, and that a Tory government would act by enforcing detention for everybody seeking asylum and speeding up the processing of applications.

On the other, New Labour accuses Hague of playing the race card – but also suggests that it is harder on the asylum issue than the Tories, having taken on more immigration officers, introduced fines for those caught smuggling asylum seekers, and withdrawn cash welfare benefits for those awaiting decisions on their cases (1).

The main parties have been presented as being at either end of a common-sense spectrum. The assumption is made that there is far too much immigration into this country already, or at least too much for the average xenophobic Brit to bear. But with almost nothing to choose between the parties, could the common-sense spectrum get any narrower?

Guardian columnist Hugo Young has usefully drawn attention to the discriminatory character of New Labour’s recent legislation (2). The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 is supposed to extend the ban on ethnic discrimination to areas not previously affected. Yet Young notes how the immigration service is specifically excluded from this. Ministers have justified this on the grounds that such discrimination would be benign. For example, it can be used in situations where a particular group, like Kosovan Albanians, are to be allowed into the country in greater numbers due to particularly pressing circumstances.

Yet ministerial orders to immigration officers quoted by Young specifically undermine this interpretation. Those of Kurd, Roma, Albanian, Tamil, Pontic Greek, Somali and Afghan origin must be subject ‘to a more rigorous examination than other persons in the same circumstances’. It is not only that immigration officials can discriminate against these groups – they must discriminate against them.

Furthermore, the orders make it very difficult to overcome the prima facie evidence against their application – their nationality – because ‘if the information [needed to pursue an application to enter] is not available in a language which the person understands, it is not necessary to provide the information in a language which he does understand.’ (3) Remarkable that when a person’s liberty is at stake, in this case their liberty to live in a particular country, that there is no condition set that they must understand the case against them.

Unfortunately, Hugo Young does not go far enough in his criticism of current legislation. After all, restrictions on immigration have been piled one on top of another for decades, and yet all of this legislation is now taken as much for granted as is the colour of the sky. Discrimination exists in both the letter of the law and its practice. One only has to have a drink in a central London pub to notice how many Australians and New Zealanders are able to work without difficulty, while those coming from other parts of the world are now treated as scroungers.

One thread of legislation has been the steady removal of the right to live in this country for people from Commonwealth countries and British territories. The Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 restricted entry to those issued with employment vouchers, a procedure directed at the New Commonwealth countries in the Indian sub-continent, Africa and the Caribbean. In 1971, a racial test was set for those who wanted to stay in Britain. Only ‘partials’ with at least 75 percent European blood had a right to live in the UK.

In 1981, British nationality was redefined – the main consequence of which was that the rights of those from British Dependent Territories were downgraded, too. Now, it is possible to gain a right of abode in Britain only by birth, by descent (from legitimate parents), by registration or naturalisation (the latter being discretionary). Primary immigration is almost impossible for those from outside the EU and a few selected countries (4).

Having directed legislation at Commonwealth immigration, even getting to Britain has been made more difficult by the use of visa requirements. These are directed at the majority of countries other than those in the EU and the USA. Notably, citizens of Commonwealth countries generally require visas now – except for those from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and the Caribbean.

The terms of the debate are neatly summed up by Hugo Young himself. While deriding both Labour and the Tories, he notes that ‘no-one disputes the need for immigration control’ (3). That such control is inhuman, racist, expensive and unnecessary has not become an issue. Instead, all we get is a debate about genuine versus bogus.

As long as the terms of the debate remain so narrow, people desperately looking for a better life in the fifth richest country in the world will redefine themselves as victims, and successive governments will use more and more draconian measures to keep them out.

Read on:

Asylum: the immigration laws are mad, by Mick Hume

The ‘s’ word, by Josie Appleton

Asylum: a bogus debate, by Josie Appleton

Long arm of the Straw, by Josie Appleton

The new etiquette on asylum, by Brendan O’Neill

spiked-issue: Race

(1) For example, report in The Times, Saturday 18 May

(2) See Hugo Young, Guardian 24 April 2001, and Guardian 8 May 2001

(3) Quoted by Hugo Young Guardian 8 May 2001

(4) For a history of British immigration law, see article by Suke Wolton, Students against Campsfield campaign website and Gherson & Co website

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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