Algerians lured by freedom of expression

Mary Braid examines French allegations that political refugees are really terrorists
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The Independent Online
The number of Algerians in Britain is believed to have doubled in the last decade to more than 10,000.

The community, which is concentrated in London, began to develop in the 1960s and early 1970s when middle-class Algerians, encouraged by their government, came to Britain to study. Many returned to become top politicians, academics and businessmen but some, impressed by the freedoms and opportunities in Britain, stayed on or returned later with families to settle.

But the growth of the community has been most marked since1992, when the Algerian army halted the democratic advance of the Islamic Salvation Front. While those persecuted either by the military-backed government or Islamic fundamentalists fled to Britain, those studying here have tried, both legally and illegally, to stay and avoid military service.

Yesterday Saad Djebbar, a leading Algerian lawyer, who has lived in Britain for two decades, insisted that the vast majority of Algerians in Britain were opposed to violence - and very few were even politically active.

The French government last week claimed that London had become a haven for exiles plotting the assassination of intellectuals, politicians and journalists in Algeria. Some commentators admit Islamic terrorists may be hiding behind apparently bona fide welfare groups in Britain. But Mr Djebbar warned that the British Government should beware of French accusations about Algerians living in Britain, some of whom he claims have been previously been unjustly treated by the French.

"Algerians who moved to Britain were impressed by the fact that your police don't wear guns and privacy is respected. The overwhelming majority of people have fled violence and don't want to see it repeated here or anywhere else." He dismissed as a minority the Algerian exiles who print and distributed Al Ansar, an underground pamphlet produced secretly in London, calling for a holy war, and thought to have links with the militant Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which has claimed responsibility for most of the French attacks.

Even rough estimates of the number of Algerian asylum seekers in the UK are hard to come by. But Home Office figures show that the numbers of Algerians entering Britain rose steadily from 14,600 in 1991 to 18,900 in 1994.

According to one commentator, Britain had become one of the main international havens for Algerian political refugees, not because it offered a handy base for terrorism against France, but because it already had an Islamic solidarity network in place and guaranteed freedom of political association.

Djaffar El Houari, a former leader of the National Salvation Front, has been in Britain for five months seeking asylum. Yesterday he said there were few members of the Front in Britain, but there was significant support. He claimed his organisation had no connection with the GIA and condemned the bombings in France but maintained the basic human right to pursue their political aims peacefully.