UN attacks Howard for 'false' claims on asylum

'Stick to the facts', refugee chief warns. 'I'm no racist' - Tory leader hits back
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Michael Howard has been accused by the United Nations refugee agency of indulging in "political opportunism" and encouraging hatred of foreigners by dragging asylum-seekers into party politics.

Michael Howard has been accused by the United Nations refugee agency of indulging in "political opportunism" and encouraging hatred of foreigners by dragging asylum-seekers into party politics.

The stinging rebuke comes ahead of Mr Howard's first speech since the official start of the election campaign, in which he will again put immigration into the centre of the political arena by accusing Tony Blair of wanting to "pussyfoot around" the issue. He will assert that "it's not racist to talk about immigration".

His words fly in the face of a sharply worded warning from the British representative of the UNHCR, Anne Dawson-Shepherd, who has accused the Conservatives of making false claims about asylum-seekers and has pleaded with them to "stick to the facts". "UNHCR is terribly worried as among some quarters the crisis rhetoric and lumping of asylum with immigration issues continues, often fuelled by thinly disguised xenophobia and political opportunism," she said.

Her statement was provoked by a false claim put out by the Conservatives in defence of their much ridiculed promise to set up offshore centres where asylum-seekers can be held while their claims are processed.

The Tories issued a press release claiming that the policy would cut the cost of immigration by £897m a year. It added: "The EU and the UNHCR have set up five pilot schemes for overseas processing centres in Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya."

But that claim has been flatly contradicted by Ms Dawson-Shepherd. "It is not correct that overseas processing centres have been established," she said. "Certainly this would not happen in countries with poor human rights records, which are also non-signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention."

Mr Howard and his aides have vehemently rejected the suggestions that they are being "racist" by raising issues such as immigration, asylum, and Gypsy camps in an election campaign. They claim that the racism charge is being used by opponents to forestall criticism of government policy.

But that claim will come under attack today from an unexpected quarter. Charles Wardle, a former Tory immigration minister, will make a guest appearance at Labour headquarters to denounce Tory immigration policy as "unworkable".

In his speech at the Telford International Centre today, Mr Howard is due to say: "For too many years immigration has been a no-go area for political debate. If you said you thought that too many people were coming here, you were branded a racist. Let's be clear: it's not racist to criticise the system. It's just common sense.

"If we don't speak up now and have a proper debate about immigration we'll only help the bigots who preach racial hatred and the people-smugglers who profit from other people's misery. Mr Blair may want to pussyfoot around this issue, but I don't."

But Mr Wardle countered by saying: "I am not aware of anyone who has called him racist. This is just his attempt to try to stir the issue rather than deal with it. Instead of hiring an Australian spin doctor, he should hire some serious people who could work up a serious policy."

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