Leading Article: An unpleasant whiff of racism that shames this nation

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THERE IS the smell of something unpleasant in the air: the whiff of anti-immigrant sentiment. And newspapers, broadcasters and politicians who should know better are helping to kick up the stink. The trigger for these expressions of the unacceptable side of British public opinion is the arrival of refugees from Kosovo, as ethnic cleansing in a patch of Balkan soil adds to ethnic mixing elsewhere in Europe.

The arrival of large groups of foreigners is bound to produce tensions, especially among the indigenous poor and downtrodden next to whom they are usually housed, but the British press is full of "waves" of asylum- seekers, mostly "bogus", and "at record levels", who have ports, airports and seaside towns "under siege", and who are "swamping" local communities. Local councils are "overstretched" and accommodation is "at bursting point".

And yet, what are the numbers? Earlier this year there was an alarm over a few hundred Czech gypsies in Dover. For the whole of the United Kingdom, in the latest month for which figures are available, July, there were 4,215 applications for asylum. According to one tabloid newspaper, this was the "third highest ever recorded", and constituted another "immigration crisis". Yet the total for this year will probably be about the same as in 1995, which recorded the highest number of applications, at 44,000. Of these people, only about one-fifth will be granted asylum status - in other words, the Government will accept that they have a genuine fear of persecution - or "exceptional leave to remain". Is anybody really saying that this country cannot take in 8,000 fearful or needy people in a year? Especially when, it should be remembered, primary immigration is now negligible - the main other source of incomers being the families of those already settled here.

To be sure, the Home Secretary has just announced an amnesty for 10,000 of the backlog of asylum applicants left over from the previous administration. But this is merely the pragmatic acknowledgement of people who are already here and have been for some time.

Jack Straw should be congratulated on getting to grips with the bureaucratic mess bequeathed by the Conservatives, and attempting to speed up the asylum process, delays in which are the main cause of injustice and local strains. But his defensiveness is disappointing. The review of asylum procedures was announced on the same day as the Cabinet reshuffle in July in order to bury it. That may not be such a bad thing: there is no point simply stirring tabloid demons. It is better than the Conservative party's occasional irresponsibility on the issue of immigration. Sir Norman Fowler, the usually invisible shadow Home Secretary, edged a little into daylight this week to prod the demons, expressing his concern about asylum seekers from central Europe. He should try harder to live up to John Major's liberal stance on the issue. He should lift his eyes from the small themes of Sutton Coldfield (his is the last Tory seat in Birmingham) to the larger responsibilities of the nation in Europe. Britain takes far fewer refugees from central Europe and the Balkans than most of our EU partners.

As for Mr Straw, he should bear in mind that, if Britain will not discharge its obligation to the people of Kosovo by using military force to push the Serbs back from their campaign of murderous repression, then the moral imperative to assist Kosovan refugees is the greater.

And both Sir Norman and Mr Straw should do more to remind people of Britain's history as a safe haven, and to build on the tolerant side of British public opinion. All nations are racial melting pots, but Britain is perhaps more conscious of the history of its ingredients. A nation moulded from Celts, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Vikings and Normans has been enriched by successive waves of the persecuted and the imported. The arrival since 1066 of Huguenots, Jews, West Indians, East African Indians, Indian Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis have all made this country an immeasurably better place. Each group encountered dislike and suspicion, and had to battle to win acceptance, but each added economic and cultural energy which reinforced the country's strength as a liberal, eclectic nation.

Let us celebrate that heritage and welcome the huddled and fearful few with open arms.