Fortress Britain

Only a fifth of those seeking asylum succeed. Soon even less will do so, reports Nick Cohen
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The Independent Online
LIKE most asylum-seekers fighting to avoid expulsion from Britain, the young Nigerian woman prefers to be known by a letter rather than a name.Friends call her Miss X. This precaution is prudent at a time when 79 per cent of people asking for refuge here have their applications refused and face deportation back into the arms of the authorities they say they have fled.

Miss X is 23. Her father, a democrat in the Nigerian National Conscience Party, was arrested and beaten up in the wave of terror that descended on Nigeria after General Sani Abacha and the military prevented the result of the 1993 general election being declared. When he got out of prison he told his children: "I can decide to die here; you must go."

Miss X came to Britain, where she had friends in the Nigerian opposition movement. But the Home Office did not believe her story. Her application for asylum was refused by officials who made no inquiries into her background in Nigeria and she now waits to be sent back to Lagos. To date nothing can make the Home Office listen to her appeals, not even copies of a Nigerian newspaper which carries a photograph of her father being dragged off from a demonstration by the police.

The chances of people like Miss X finding sanctuary in this country will if anything be worse in the future. Next month's Queen's Speech will include the promise of yet another crackdown on refugees and illegal immigrants. Employers will be forced to check that their staff have the right to work in Britain. If they do not, the employers will be fined. The right to appeal against Home Office decisions will be cut back and ministers will issue a "white list" of allegedly safe countries from which asylum claims will not be considered.

That is not all. Next January about 40,000 people who have claimed asylum after entering Britain as ordinary visitors, or who have had their claims rejected but have stayed so they can appeal, will have all rights to benefit removed. Home Office regulations prevent them working until they have spent six months in Britain. The choice facing them will be, according to Nick Hardwick, chief executive of the Refugee Council, begging or starvation. Mr Hardwick cannot understand why there is not more alarm about this.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, claims that tough measures are necessary to stop economic migrants escaping immigration laws by posing as asylum- seekers who have come here for their own safety. Labour claims that Mr Howard is playing the race card just in time for the general election.

"PEOPLE in Britain have become so indoctrinated that they cannot hear the words 'asylum-seeker' without thinking 'bogus'," said Chris Randall, one of the country's leading asylum lawyers. It is a familiar complaint from refugee workers. They, and others of the Government's critics, feel they have been through similar "scares" before every election they can remember. For example, in 1991 (just before the last election) Kenneth Baker, the then Home Secretary, announced in language very similar to Mr Howard's that "bogus" asylum-seekers were taking advantage of Britain. The pattern was the same then as it is now. The first sign of a hard line was Home Office-inspired warnings of abuse of the system appearing in sympathetic newspapers. The election intervened and then there were firm speeches from ministers at the 1992 Conservative Party conference followed a few weeks later by action. Kenneth Clarke, Mr Baker's successor at the Home Office, introduced a tough asylum Bill which he said would "strengthen our system of controlling entry".

Since that Bill became law, the numbers of people seeking asylum in Britain have risen. Three years ago there were 24,605; in 1994 there were 32,830 and this year the total is expected to be about 40,000. In that same period the nature of asylum-seekers has changed and their chances of being allowed to stay here have been greatly reduced. THE BIGGEST change has been in the policy on Bosnia. Nearly everyone would accept that many Bosnian Muslims, whose community has been the principal victim of ethnic cleansing, are genuine refugees.

In November 1992, however, as the number of asylum-seekers from the former Yugoslavia arriving here rose to more than 5,000 a year, the Government announced that no Bosnian could travel to Britain without a visa. This was Catch 22. There was and is no British embassy in Bosnia where Muslims could get a visa. If they left to get one from the British embassy in Vienna, for example, they would still be denied the ability to claim asylum in Britain as the "third country rule" requires refugees to claim asylum in the first safe country they reach. So the number of refugees from former Yugoslavia arriving here collapsed.

With Bosnia out of the way, the bulk of today's asylum-seekers come from Turkey, Nigeria, Zaire, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. They too face many hurdles as a result of the 1992 Act. If they pass through a safe third country they can be deported back. If they cannot give a "prompt" account of themselves, it is held against them and the fact that they may be disorientated, unable to speak English or be suffering from the after-effects of torture need not be taken into consideration. They must prove they have a justified fear of persecution, which may be defined narrowly to mean a specific death threat. They must also prove they could not move to a "safe" part of their own country rather than come to Britain.

The stated intention of the 1992 Act was to reduce the number of asylum- seekers granted "exceptional leave to remain" - temporary permission to stay - which had been the surest method of getting the legal right to asylum in the 1980s. The result has been dramatic. In 1990, 83 per cent of asylum-seekers obtained permission to live in Britain either as refugees (who are effectively British citizens) or on exceptional leave to remain. Last year, only 21 per cent were allowed to stay.

The Government's critics say that the Home Office has invented its own foreign policy, complete with a rosy view of the world, to justify this clampdown. Earlier this month, for example, the Refugee Council quoted Douglas Hurd as saying, while he was still Foreign Secretary, that the Nigerian generals were exercising "growing cruelty" and ruling with "harsh oppression". The US State Department and Amnesty International used stronger language.

Yet a Home Office report, sent to its immigration officers dealing with Nigerian asylum cases and leaked to the Council, described Nigeria as a country where "rights are generally respected", and "unfair trials" against racial, religious or political opponents of the regime were unknown. The consequence is that, of the 2,000 Nigerians who asked for asylum in Britain since the elections there were annulled in 1993, only 17 have been given permission to stay. .

"What gets me," said Claude Moraes, general secretary of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, "is that the Government has fixed the system so that people in real fear of their lives are classed as bogus. It then turns round and shouts, 'Look, only a few people we deal with are genuine refugees, so let's fix it some more'."

To ministers, accusations of racism and indifference to suffering are scandalous. They point to the figures to justify further restrictions. In the 1980s, between 3,000 and 4,000 people a year claimed asylum here. In 1989 the figure jumped to 11,600 and despite significant swings has never fallen below 20,000 since 1990. One Home Office source said last week that it was obvious that economic migrants had discovered that claiming asylum was the best way to beat Britain's immigration laws.

Police forces can come up with evidence to back the allegation. In the East End of London, detectives have said that 60 per cent of illegal Algerian immigrants they arrest either for holding a forged passport or committing other crimes immediately claim asylum in the hope of staving off deportation. In other words, the idea of asylum is only an afterthought to them.

Privately, lawyers admit that they try to "fight the Home Office to a standstill" over asylum cases. It can take up to 18 months for the chaotic and under-resourced Immigration Service to deal with a case. If an asylum- seeker loses, and if he has a good lawyer, he can appeal to a tribunal. If he loses there, he can seek a judicial review. While the legal process drags on, there is always an outside chance that the asylum-seeker will marry a British subject and - once checks the marriage is for love have been carried out - be given permission to stay.

But demographers say the argument that most asylum claims are a con will not wash. Good, honest reasons lay behind the leap in asylum claims in 1989. That year saw the collapse of Communism and led directly to the break-up of the Soviet Union and indirectly to the civil war in Yugoslavia. In Africa, where superpower confrontation had long held much of the continent in a grim stalemate, the changes of 1989 set off a brushfire of conflict and put millions to flight.

The result, said Ann Singleton, from the migration research unit at University College, London, which advises the Council of Europe on population movements, was a rise in asylum claims to all European countries. By European standards, Britain, isolated from all major zones of conflict and population explosion, has received comparatively few of these. Between 1992 and 1994, there were 887,000 applications for asylum in Germany and 102,000 in Britain. In the past two years, as other European countries have followed the British model and tightened their laws, Britain has received proportionately more refugees. But the numbers are still small for a country with a population of 60 million. In any case, last year's figures show that four-fifths of claims for sanctuary are already being rejected.

The same suspicion that Michael Howard's proposed measures are an over- reaction is raised by his suggestion that employers need to be recruited to help combat illegal immigration. The problem does not seem to be great enough to justify yet more punitive sanctions.

Last year 9.2 million passengers who were not European Union citizens came to Britain on business or pleasure. Only 13,100 were subsequently arrested inside the country and served with deportation orders either because they were illegal immigrants or visitors here lawfully who had committed a crime.

The Government, the Immigration Service union and the tabloid press insist that this is not the whole picture. Just as most criminals are not caught, most illegal immigrants escape detection, they argue, so the few thousand who are caught are just the tip of the iceberg.

But Sarah Spencer, immigration specialist at the left-leaning Institute for Public Policy Research, challenges this idea. An illegal immigrant is not like a burglar who once he gets away with his crime has nothing to fear from the police, she said. An illegal immigrant is illegal 24 hours a day and every contact with officialdom raises the possibility of detection.

"You also need to realise they are not like other criminals," she added. "Most want to work; many are well qualified. That does not mean we should allow the rules to be broken or not worry in the long term about population growth in Africa. But we should have a proportionate response and ask why the Government has never done any research into who illegal immigrants are. If it spent the money on a computer system at airports, it could find out precisely how many people have not left the country when their visas and permits have expired. Why don't they do it?"

To many on the left the answer is obvious. Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, described Mr Howard's proposals as "the most crude playing of the race card I have ever seen". The British Council of Churches is planning to appeal to Christian Conservatives to revolt when Mr Howard's measures come before the House of Commons.

Even some of the Home Secretary's colleagues are uneasy. Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, said the plan to punish companies that hired illegal immigrants would lead to employers refusing to give jobs to black and Asian Britons rather than risk a fine if they make a mistake. Charles Wardle, the former immigration minister, who is no liberal, has questioned whether there is the need for yet another immigration and asylum Bill.

Mr Howard rejects the allegations against him. Good race relations, he has said, depend on the immigration system being protected by tough sanctions. He is not playing the race card but protecting the ethnic minorities by preventing a white backlash.

Labour says the Conservative leadership is engaged in a dangerous opportunist game whose consequences it cannot foresee. Jack Straw cites as evidence a frank article by Andrew Lansley, director of research at Conservative Central Office, who retired last month. Mr Lansley said the Government could still win the next election, and gave a list of "negative perceptions" of Labour on which ministers should concentrate. High on this list was race: "Immigration, an issue which we raised successfully in 1992 and in the 1994 Euro-elections campaign, played particularly well in the tabloids and still has the potential to hurt."

PEOPLE who know Mr Howard say he is no racist. Nor can we imagine that he has an animus against immigrants or asylum-seekers. His maternal grandparents came here from Tsarist Russia and his paternal grandparents came from Romania. They were Jews, fleeing persecution.

Yet the pogroms which drove them out, though they seemed terrible at the time, would merit only mild international interest today - the deaths were numbered in tens, rather than hundreds or thousands. As Eric Hobsbawm puts it in his recent history of the 20th century, The Age of Extremes: "We forget that the pogroms in Tsarist Russia which (justifiably) outraged world opinion and drove Russian Jews across the Atlantic in their millions between 1881 and 1914 were small, almost negligible, by the standards of modern massacre." Would today's Home Office have given asylum to such refugees?