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"Britain has a proud tradition of providing refuge for those fleeing persecution," wrote the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, in the Daily Mail last November. Indeed, he has a personal debt to that tradition: his own father fled to Britain from persecution in Romania in the Thirties.

Britain's history as a haven can be traced back to the 16th century: in the 1560s, there was an influx of Protestants from the Netherlands; in the 1680s, when the Edict of Nantes was revoked by Louis XIV, 50,000 French Huguenots sought sanctuary here; the French Revolution of 1789 resulted in the arrival of more refugees, and as further risings flared around Europe, Britain welcomed revolutionaries and deposed monarchs alike - from Karl Marx to the Austrian statesman Prince Metternich. The absence of laws restricting the entrance of refugees was a source of pride for Victorians: between 1826 and 1905 no refugee was denied access to the UK.

The 20th century, however, has seen the gradual erosion of refugee rights in the UK, in spite of the enshrining of the principle of asylum as a worldwide law in the UN Convention Relating to Refugees in 1951. Following the arrival of thousands of Russian Jews at the turn of the century, the Aliens Act was passed in 1905; and after the First World War, the Aliens Restrictions Act gave the Home Secretary power to deny access to refugees. In the Thirties, public concern over the treatment of Jews in Europe forced a change of policy, and by 1951 an estimated 250,000 refugees from Germany, Poland and Austria had settled in the UK.

Since then, the arrival of asylum-seekers from Asia, Africa and South America has resulted in more stringent legislation intended to stem the flow, culminating in the Asylum Act of 1993. During the Bosnian conflict, for instance, the Government announced that no Bosnian could travel to Britain without a visa - yet there was no British Embassy in Bosnia where a visa might be obtained. Then, at the end of last year, following an increase in applications to Britain, Mr Howard unveiled his "white list" of allegedly safe countries whose nationals are unlikely to deserve refugee status.

We might do well to remember that the creators of many British institutions were receivers of asylum: seven of the 24 founder directors of the Bank of England were Huguenots, and the first Governor was the scion of a refugee family from the Low Countries. Alfred Mond, the founder of ICI, was the son of a refugee; and in 1894, one Michael Marks, a Polish refugee, opened his Penny Bazaar in Leeds. When he teamed up with Tom Spencer 10 years later, a British retail giant was born.