The battle of Sangatte

Why does the spectre of the asylum seeker haunt the UK establishment?

Josie Appleton

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‘The French government must accept that it cannot just tolerate thousands of illegal immigrants hanging around….’ (1)

This call came not from French National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, but from UK home secretary David Blunkett. The fact that the self-consciously tolerant UK is telling the apparently racist French that they really must do something about their illegal immigrants indicates that concern about immigration is far from being a far-right issue.

Indeed, two news items reported today suggest that the concern about immigration is at the centre of political debate in the UK.

The row over the Sangatte refugee centre near Calais, which is used as a base for asylum seekers to attempt crossings from France to England, has started up again – with suggestions in a French newspaper that the French government is considering closing the camp on the basis that the UK accepts some of its 1300 residents.

‘BLACKMAIL’, screamed the UK Daily Mail. ‘It’s outrageous’, said shadow chancellor Michael Howard. ‘We should not be taking people from France – they should be taking people back from us.’

Howard needn’t worry about UK politicians striking a hard bargain if another leaked Downing Street document is anything to go by. This confidential ‘action plan’ to ‘deliver a radical reduction in the number of unfounded asylum applications’ suggests that UK prime minister Tony Blair is taking the asylum issue very seriously indeed (2).

The document suggests a range of tough measures, including tying overseas development aid to countries like Somalia, Sri Lanka and Turkey on the condition that they take back rejected asylum seekers. It also suggests deploying navy ships in the eastern Mediterranean to intercept people traffickers, and organising ‘bulk’ repatriations of asylum seekers in RAF transport planes.

Columnist Seumas Milne argues that this document amounts to the Blair government declaring a ‘political war on asylum’ – trying to make immigration its own ground to avoid fringe parties exploiting people’s anxieties. Milne rightly points out that ‘by talking and acting as though there is a growing crisis’, the UK government will only manage to inflame any existing anxieties.

Certainly, these measures are draconian and dehumanising, and should be opposed. But what underlies the UK government’s attempts to crack down on asylum-seekers is not conventional racism, but a broader sense of fear, and a feeling of being out of control.

One of the measures suggested in the Downing Street document was a (deliberately titled) ‘white list’ – designed to turn away ‘manifestly unfounded applicants (in particular those from Eastern Europe’. It is the fact that people want to get in and the authorities can’t stop them that underlies the government’s concern – not these people’s race or cultural background.

The spectre of the asylum seeker that haunts the establishment is a shadowy figure who, night after night, climbs the fences at Calais, slips through cracks, sneaks on to trains. Asylum seekers are seen as lawless, defying boundaries and breeding instability. This fear was no doubt fed by recent riots at the overcrowded Sangatte refugee centre, when there were pitched battles between Afghans and Kurds.

Having said this, whatever the UK government comes up with it is unlikely to reduce the numbers of asylum seekers. In 2001 83,000 people applied for asylum status in Britain – 74 percent were refused, but only 9200 were deported (3). The UK government has proved itself incapable of producing a crackdown on asylum, which would require stringent policing of borders, repression and mass deportations. These heavy-handed policies being floated are, in a sense, a way of trying to make up for that.

Which makes the policies no less dangerous – especially for asylum seekers.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Race

(1) The Times, 23 May 2002

(2) Blair’s secret plan to crack down on asylum seekers, Guardian, 23 May 2002; and Declaration of war on asylum, Guardian, 23 May 2002

(3) The Times, 23 May 2002

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