AT THE GATES OF F ORTRESS BRITAIN

More refugees than ever are seeking asylum in the UK. Should we, like Peter Lilley, feel threatened by them? Or are there larger issues at stake?

Here is an everyday story of practical politics in a small European democracy, where the efficient and practical management of national affairs can occasionally take second place to the pursuit of a good headline in the Daily Mail.

At last year's Conservative Party conference, the Secretary of State for Social Security revealed a clever plan to deter the hordes of people who were arriving on these shores in the guise of students or tourists, only to announce later that they were really refugees. This deceitful behaviour, he explained, was allowing large numbers of people (22,600 applied for asylum after being let into Britain in 1994, compared with 10,230 who applied on arrival) to extend their visit, living on our benefits, while their claims to have been persecuted, tortured or whatever else were investigated. Nor was this all. Mr Lilley's plan was two-pronged, so that not only would foreigners have to announce themselves as refugees immediately or lose all benefits, but, once their applications had been turned down, there would be no chance of living on our benefits while they appealed against the decision. This would put an end to all that lolling around in taxpayer-funded idleness and ripping-off of a country which is no doubt much pleasanter than their own, but which, unhappily for them, happens to be ours.

Mr Lilley published his plan the very next day, and at once began to come unstuck. The government's own independent advisory committee recommended - quite unprecedentedly - that he should not implement it. He was forced to have a (short, late-night) parliamentary debate before his rules could come into force in February. Then two local authorities - Westminster and Hammersmith & Fulham - threatened to take him to court, on the grounds that if aspirant refugees couldn't claim benefits (obviously, they weren't allowed to work), councils would be legally obliged to house pregnant women and children who might be left destitute. In the end, he bought them off with a promise to refund 80 per cent of their costs. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants did take him to court, arguing that he was undermining a law passed only three years ago enshrining asylum- seekers' right of appeal. They wanted to know how people were supposed to appeal if they had nothing to live on in the meantime?

At the end of June, the Court of Appeal agreed that this was a valid point, and threw out Mr Lilley's plan with some force, Lord Justice Simon Brown commenting that the plan would leave "some asylum seekers so destitute that in my mind no civilised nation can tolerate it." And that might have been the end of that, except that Mr Lilley then tacked his proposals on to the Asylum & Immigration Bill, which was about to go for its third reading in the House of Lords. This was an audacious move, but effective: "live" immigration legislation at the time of a general election is every Labour politician's nightmare, so Labour agreed to deal with the Bill in one day. Thanks to the Court of Appeal, refugees (such as those pictured here) who were destitute between February and June have had their benefits restored for the time being. But Mr Lilley's plan, soon to acquire the status of primary legislation, looks likely to be saved. Would-be refugees who do not apply for asylum more or less on arrival (a Labour amendment now gives them three days) will not be eligible for State benefits.

It is not clear how much difference this will make. Even at the height of his excitement, Mr Lilley could only promise that his plan would cut his department's budget by one-third of one per cent. Now he will have to recompense the local authorities. The opposition's three-day amendment succeeded in undermining the plan further. And the legislative contradiction highlighted by the Appeal Court remains: you can't invite people to appeal one minute and try to starve them the next. Once the Bill becomes law, this paradox will inevitably be challenged in the courts.

In a sense, however, all this is beside the point. Mr Lilley got a standing ovation at the conference and his "bogus asylum-seekers" headlines the day after. The Labour Party ducked and dodged any charge that it was about to open our borders to hordes of dispossessed people determined to drain our resources. And though no great sum of money may be saved, and the law may very well have to be changed back again, refugees - both real and bogus - might think twice about coming here.

Which is exactly what everyone wants. As a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention On Refugees, Britain may have a legal obligation to offer protection to genuine asylum seekers, but we would rather not be asked too often. The world has changed since 1951, and consciousness of these changes animates public policy, even though the government does not care publicly to acknowledge the fact.

More people are displaced than ever before (estimates vary wildly, but there are currently thought to be between 18m and 50m uprooted people in the world). Improved communications mean that these people have a clearer idea that life could be different elsewhere, and ever-increasing opportunities to travel, not least thanks to the globalisation of crime. (Many refugees, genuine and otherwise, depend on criminal agents who will provide forged documents and ensure their safe passage.) Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, in countries with developed welfare systems, governments increasingly see their citizens as liablities rather than assets, and are loath to accept new ones. The post-colonial, post-Cold War political landscape is scarred by factionalism, uprisings, civil war, violent repression and vast inequalities in income. If you lived in Sierra Leone, where in many areas civil order has largely broken down and life expectancy is 30 years, you might well feel desperate enough to try to flee to Britain. Would that make you a refugee?

The short answer is that it wouldn't. A refugee is defined by the 1951 UN Convention as someone who can demonstrate a "well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion". The citizen of Sierra Leone might consider himself a victim of something approaching persecution, not least in the form of exploitation by the richer parts of the world, but he would still be classed as an economic migrant (assuming that - most unlikely - he could ever afford to travel). The Convention was not written to deal with economic "persecution".

There will, of course, always be incontrovertible applications for asylum - the prominent political activist who bears the scars of torture - but there will also be many more complicated and opaque cases. The need for applicants to demonstrate probity requires the existence of exhaustive processes to test it. And this is where the difficulties arise, because the processes can make a vast difference to the outcome. In Britain there is, for example, currently a presupposition that anyone committing a criminal offence in the process of coming here is liable to be suspect. But often the most deserving refugees - that's to say the most persecuted - have no option but to travel on false documents. Similarly, assumptions are made about asylum-seekers from particular countries - Nigeria, for example (applicants from which are viewed with suspicion because so many of their compatriots have been convicted in Britain on fraud charges). The trial on trumped-up charges of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni people began in February 1995, and concluded with their conviction in October and execution in November. Yet the Home Office's country profile of Nigeria, which is handed out to asylum case workers, claimed until December 1995 that there was "no evidence that Ogonis... face persecution from the Nigerian authorities."

The wording of the 1951 convention is, in other words, open to wide interpretation. It would seem on the face of it to include Bosnians. Yet very few Bosnian refugees have been allowed into Britain, or indeed the rest of Western Europe. The UN preferred to create so-called "safe areas" inside the former Yugoslavia, while European governments gave "temporary" protection to a quota of those who managed to escape. These people (Britain has less of them than most countries) have none of the rights of proper refugees, and it is not clear what will happen to them in the long term.

When you consider how many people in the world might prefer to live in Britain than wherever they live now, it is easy to appreciate the power of the government's frequently invoked spectre of a tidal wave of economic migrants masquerading as refugees. The poor are frightening even when they are our poor; the foreign poor are really frightening. In Britain at a time when the gap between rich and poor is widening, there don't seem to be enough resources to go round even for those who are here already, let alone for those who might like to join us and share. Clearly, there are people who come to Britain opportunistically. But increasingly in the modern world, to be poor is also to be persecuted. It is no coincidence that many of the poorest countries in the world are also the most unstable. Where there are very few resources, those who have guns are readier to use them to get what they want.

The ending of the Cold War has meant that what were once the great powers have a diminishing interest in shoring up regimes, and the poor parts of the world have grown increasingly anarchic. In states creeping towards democracy, greater numbers of people become involved in politics. In Zaire, for example, where only an elite would formerly have opposed the regime, now many thousands of people do so - and when civil order begins to break down, their position can become precarious. Potentially, that can mean thousands more refugees.

Such people are unlikely to receive a sympathetic hearing in Western Europe or North America. Their economic circumstances will loom larger in immigration departments' minds than their misfortune in being Tutsis, or Ogoni, or even, probably, Algerian journalists opposed to Islamic fundamentalism. (There is a growing enthusiasm in Europe for excluding from refugee status those persecuted by anyone other than the state.) The poorer countries of the world are increasingly seen by the richer as hearts of darkness, teeming with people as unstable as their regimes, who, given half a chance, would flood in and wreak their anarchic revenge on the stable, comfortable North.

This perception does have some substance. What we refer to glibly as globalisation is actually a concentration of economic power in three regions of the world - Western Europe, America and East Asia. Beyond these blocs, living standards have collapsed: in some Southern Asian parts of the former Soviet Union, for example, GDP per capita is now less than $100 a year. These are places that are actually going backwards. It is not altogether surprising that the affluent parts of the globe, already uneasy at the prospect of meeting welfare commitments to their own citizens, feel that they need to protect themselves from the claims of disaffected people beyond their borders.

The economic philosophy of the America and East Asia - the newer and brasher of these blocs - seeks to exploit regional differences in wealth, and by extension, inter-regional ones as well. Difference is seen as a virtue, an opportunity. Fashionable neoliberal economics finds inequality efficient. The result is that as capital, consumer goods and information move ever more freely around the world, people - or some people - do not. Globalisation, ironically, is leading to ever more tightly protected borders. When an international commitment to abstract principles of human rights collides with national self-interest, the self-interest has a tendency to win, and this suits electorates very well. No one wants someone from Sudan or Turkey undercutting their wages and taking their job, or living on their taxes; still less a whole lot of people from Sudan and Turkey. And these rational concerns about resources convert readily into atavistic racism. It isn't even necessary to spell it out. It's understood, felt deeply. And so, at a time when there are more people than ever displaced, fewer than ever are managing to cross borders into neighbouring countries. According to Nicholas Stockton, Emergencies Director of Oxfam, people trying to leave Burundi are currently being shot at by Tanzania. "It's scarcely commented upon, because there's been such a profound change in the behaviour of other countries towards refugees." Fortress Europe doesn't want the problem; why should Tanzania?

Understanding the fear in Britain of refugees en masse does not, of course, invalidate the case for granting asylum to individuals. Each would- be refugee's story is different, and some (including many of those recounted on these pages) are deeply moving. The proper response to a panic that has some substance is to listen to these stories more attentively, not to stop them being told.

The Government, however, has consistently sought to close down opportunities for refugees to explain themselves. The Home Office's glib logic is that while the numbers applying have risen dramatically (up from 4,000 in 1988 to 43,965 in 1995), the numbers granted asylum have remained very low. In 1995, 1,295 people (4.7 per cent) were granted asylum and 4,410 (16.3 per cent) exceptional leave to remain, a sort of second-class refugee status. (In 1988, by contrast, 25 per cent were granted refugee status, and 60 per cent exceptional leave to reamin.) The Government's circular argument is that fewer people are being granted refugee status, therefore a higher proportion of applicants must be bogus, therefore restrictions on entry should be tightened. Which of course means that fewer people will be granted refugee status.

To accept the official conclusion it is necessary blithely to disregard the recent significant shifts in the criteria that asylum-seekers are expected to meet. In addition, there is reason to suspect that the Government is simply imposing an arbitrary quota on the number of refugees it will accept. Before 1993, the proportion of applicants granted asylum in any given time period fluctuated wildly between 40 per cent and 80 per cent. Ever since, it has remained curiously consistent, at around 20 per cent, whatever time period you care to look at. Other considerations, it seems, are being applied.

Britain is not alone in its new unwelcoming approach: one of the most interesting aspects of the shift in policy towards refugees has been its European character. Contrary to popular belief, Germany does not have a more enlightened approach to asylum-seekers than Britain. That was the case once, but Article 16 of the German constitution declaring the right of asylum has been repealed.

The so-called "white list" of countries - seven countries in which there is deemed to be no great risk of persecution, allowing for a "fast track" assessment and, usually, rejection - started in Germany, Finland and Switzerland, and was introduced in Britain following its incorporation into a European Union resolution in 1992. The list includes India, Pakistan and Kenya, in all of which Amnesty International has documented serious human rights abuses. Another change, the eagerness to return asylum-seekers to any "safe third country" through which they have travelled while fleeing, is also a European initiative. (You don't even have to know you've been in another country; the thinking is that you should have applied for asylum anyway.) This was started by France and the Netherlands, and again was incorporated into an EU resolution signed in 1992.

None of this is to suggest that there should be no common European policy on refugees. But neither of these changes was debated by the European Parliament or the Council of Ministers. They were drawn up by a bunch of anonymous EU home affairs officials, known as the Ad Hoc Group Immigration, written into two documents signed by Ministers, and implemented in Britain without the vast majority of MPs (including opposition front-benchers) ever knowing of the documents' existence.

Conspiracy theorists would argue that it is no coincidence that refugee regulations were tightened in 1992, when there was concern throughout Europe about an influx of refugees from the former Yugoslavia. That was also the year the Bosnian "safe areas" were created (better to contain the problem inside rather than have people spilling over the borders) and visa restrictions imposed by Britain on former Yugoslav nationals, as they have been on refugee-producing countries before and since (Sri Lanka in 1985, Turkey in 1989, Kenya in 1996).

Airlines are now fined if they carry passengers who should have visas but can't produce them, a development that has forced refugees to travel overland through "third countries", to which they can now be swiftly returned. (Amnesty International have spent several years unsuccessfully trying to help what is now a small colony of refugees who have been returned to Moscow Airport, can't go back or forwards, and are dependent on handouts from passing business people.)

Mr Lilley's plan to insist on declaration of refugee status on arrival in Britain would meanwhile have the effect of imposing a further Catch 22 on asylum-seekers. Declare yourself and get bounced back to some place you may have passed through; don't declare yourself and face starvation.

What to do about refugees is not a question susceptible of easy answers. It pitches self-interest against conscience, nationalism against internationalism. But the answer cannot be to stop considering asylum applications. The depths of dislocation and misery contained in almost any genuine refugee's story are so distressing that anyone with a trace of compassion must wonder how a generalised fear of economic migrants could have made it so difficult for deserving cases to be granted asylum.

And it is difficult: the process is long and tortuous, and there is a ready presumption of duplicity. Any change in a story is regarded as an attempt to embroider. A delayed admission that you have been raped, for example, is likely to discredit you, even though the police now accept that rape victims are unlikely to be able to talk about their ordeal until they have gained confidence in their interlocutors.

A request for asylum currently takes an average of nine months to be judged, and a further 10 months (though sometimes as much as two years) on appeal. This looks like an invitation to abuse the process: it wouldn't be worth coming here for a matter of weeks. But for the best part of two years? This is even more the case when you consider how many people who have finally been judged ineligible for asylum are actually made to leave. According to Amnesty International, between 1992 and 1995 some 54,000 rejected asylum seekers reached the end of the road in Britain. But in the same period only 7,902 were removed or voluntarily departed from this country. That is approximately one in seven. The rest presumably remain illegally.

The British Government would do better to plough resources into making the assessment process swift and searching and seeing that people really were removed at the end of it. It might be more expensive at the outset, but quick decisions - and effective removal - could save a good deal in benefits.

The larger task of trying to impose a rational, overarching order on an inherently unstable, disordered situation may well be beyond the scope of existing international institutions. International business now controls much of the global economy, and the political bodies capable of restraining or monitoring its activities have not yet been devised. The aid agencies believe that international business enterprises often exacerbate poverty and violence. South African entrepreneurs, for example, use ex-army and police officers and strong-arm tactics to keep the mines working in Sierra Leone; the presence of loggers in Latin America has led to assassinations of their opponents. And while electorates in the richer countries can appreciate that business might have to be held to account for exporting pollution to far-flung parts of the globe, they tend not to make the same connections when business underpins inequality and inflames instability.

Until or unless those connections are made, it is likely that there will be increasing numbers of would-be refugees. In the increasingly individualistic, self-interested societies of the developed world, the aid agencies are having difficulty getting anyone to care much about the move towards merely containing - rather than combatting - inequality in world affairs. Refugees will be increasingly stigmatised as economic migrants, and that is what, in part, they will be. But that glib phrase, economic migrant, tells rather less than the whole story. !

FEAR AND DECEPTION: this 26-year-old woman (above) fled from the Ivory Coast, via France, on false documents. She was eight months pregnant. Her fiance had disappeared during an anti-government demonstration; her house was ransacked when she tried to find him. She has since given birth and has therefore been found accommodation by the local authority, which is obliged by law to house children; but she still fears recognition. Under the new regulations, she could be charged with trying to enter, or to remain in, Britain by deception

HUNGRY AND HOMELESS: this 32-year-old opposition propagandist from the Congo (below) fled the country after government troops ransacked his house and threatened his wife and child. Two years earlier he had been briefly imprisoned and tortured. He came to Britain earlier this year. Speaking no English, he didn't apply for asylum on the day he arrived (as then required by the new regulations) and spent months with no assistance waiting for a decision on his application. 'I've been sleeping on the street, in hostels, on church floors. For four days I went without food'

DISABLED AND DESTITUTE: this 26-year-old Somali (left) is no different from any other Somali apart from being confined to a wheelchair following an attack of polio. He was brought to Britain earlier this year by an agent to escape the civil war. His family had fled from Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, leaving him in the care of his grandfather, who died. A clergyman then looked after him for a while before entrusting him to the agent. He did not apply for asylum until the day after he arrived in Britain, thus disqualifying himself from receiving social security benefits under the new regulations. The Department of Social Security gave him a crisis loan of pounds 34 but refused any further benefits pending a decision on his application. A fellow Somali found a place for him to live: a bedsit on the first floor of a block of flats with no lift. 'The Home Office gave me a piece of paper to allow me to stay but nowhere to sleep nor any food to eat. I will go back to my country when it is safe, but I cannot go back now. I asked if I could meet the Home Secretary. How would he feel if he put himself in my shoes, a disabled person in a foreign country who knows no one and has no money?'

DOUBLE TRAGEDY: this 31-year-old woman from Cameroon (above) was eight months pregnant when this photograph was taken, shortly after her arrival in Britain in April. The baby has since been still-born. The pregnancy had been a peculiarly harrowing one. Her husband, a member of Cameroon's main opposition party, 'disappeared' last year and is presumed dead; she herself narrowly escaped arrest by the secret police, she says. Smuggled out by an agent - leaving her two children behind with her parents - she did not know that she was being taken to Britain and did not apply for asylum until two days after her arrival. With the help of the Refugee Council, she was found a place to stay by a local authority, although she may lose this following the still-birth. Until the Appeal Court decision, she was disqualified from receiving social security benefits. 'I wish my children could be with me but I haven't got the means to look after them'

ETHNICALLY CLEANSED: this 22-year-old single man from the Congo (left) was persecuted in his home village because his family belongs to a minority tribe. He was imprisoned and tortured before he escaped and, with the help of an agent, fled the country. At the time, he had no idea where his final destination was. Arriving in Britain, he did not immediately apply for asylum, thus falling foul of the new regulations. 'I had no idea about the procedure for applying for asylum and had no idea about the benefit system or recent cuts.' He has been waiting for a decision on his case for months. 'I feel I have been chased away since my arrival in the UK. I am completely lost, and my life has been turned into a nightmare'

A FAMILY AFFAIR: this married woman in her twenties (above) fled Somalia with her two sons, aged one and four. 'Soldiers came into our home looking for my husband, who was politically active. He wasn't there. Instead, they killed my brother-in-law and hit me repeatedly with their guns.' Shortly afterwards, an agent offered to smuggle her out of the country. She did not know where she was going to be taken. Arriving in Britain with no money, she was housed in a bedsit by a local authority, who have a statutory requirement to look after mothers with children. She was also given a small amount of money to live on, although she has been expected to pay council tax from this. 'I escaped because I feared for my life. I don't know where my husband is now'

THE WRONG KIND OF MUSLIM: as a Hazara Muslim, this 22-year-old single man found himself on the wrong side of Afghanistan's continuing civil war. He had worked as a cook and driver for one of the groups fighting for power, but subsequently found his life threatened by other, more powerful Muslim factions. His younger brother had already been killed in the war, and, unable to hide his religious and ethnic identity, he decided to escape while he still could. He paid a substantial fee to an agent, and shortly afterwards arrived in the UK, where he fell foul of the new regulations. 'I didn't claim asylum at the airport because the agent told me I would be sent back straight away if people knew I was a refugee. I did not know about the benefits changes.' These meant that, irrespective of the merits of his case for asylum, he has been forced to rely on charity to survive. 'I had $20, but now I have no money'

IN FLIGHT FROM BIGOTRY: formerly a political activist and journalist, this 34-year-old Iranian man (left) was imprisoned for seven years for writing articles criticising the Ayatollahs' regime. He was tortured, and spent a year in solitary confinement, before escaping to Turkey - a far from safe haven, as Iranian agents were pursuing him. From there he was smuggled to Britain in the back of a lorry. Unable to claim state benefits, he has been relying on the charity of an Iranian family in London. 'I have no money and no documents to travel. I have already lost many years of my life because I spoke out for democracy in my country. I do not want to go on living in fear of my life, but I do not know what will happen to me here'

THE VICTIM OF WAR: this 18-year-old man (left) from Kosovo in former Yugoslavia was arrested and beaten for joining the opposition party and refusing to fight for the Serbian army. His brother had already been killed in Bosnia, having been forced to fight for the Serbs; his father had been arrested and, later, found dead. His family paid an agent around pounds 2,000 to help him to escape, and he was taken to Britain. He had no control over where he was taken, and has found no viable way of living since arriving. 'I have no money left, but I am not allowed to work. It is not our custom not to work. What am I to do?'

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