The rights and wrongs of asylum are a muddy business. Even leading campaigners for refugee rights agree that the most fundamental principles of refugee status are murky. But first there are a few clear and easy principles.
There is currently a backlog of 56,000 cases awaiting adjudication, some 754 of them in prison. Those in detention have been put there on the authority of immigration officers alone, mainly for fear that they may abscond. Some stay locked up without a court hearing for more than two years - though the immigration service is notoriously bad at identifying the right potential absconders. The real injustice, as so often with our badly managed legal system, is delay in getting a judgment.
The hunger strikers and refugee campaigners want detainees to have a right to a judicial hearing within seven days of incarceration - in other words, the basic habeas corpus that is the bedrock right of any civilised nation. Not much to ask. As persons convicted of no crime, they also want the right to be held in special centres and not in prisons - another reasonable request.
However, instead of considering the merits of their cause, the Government has continued with its campaign of vilification against "bogus" asylum- seekers - of whom more later. Ann Widdecombe, prisons minister, was eager to tell the Commons that one of the hunger strikers is a convicted sex offender - as though that somehow answered their complaints. No one is suggesting that all asylum-seekers be released - only that their cases are reviewed by a judge so they can at least know why they are detained, and plead for bail. (Though to get bail, they need a British resident to put up pounds 2,000 surety, and many know no one here.)
Implementing his benefit cuts for asylum-seekers has been yet another of Michael Howard's legal and administrative catastrophes. The new rules introduced exactly a year ago meant that 13,000 asylum-seekers lost any means of survival. However, the regulations were struck down by the Court of Appeal and Howard had to reincorporate them into his Asylum and Immigration Act in July.
Then the High Court told local authorities that they do have a duty, under the old National Assistance Act, to provide food, warmth and shelter to anyone destitute, including asylum-seekers. But legal advice has warned local authorities that they cannot legally provide them with any money - only with food and shelter. This has led to a truly bizarre situation.
In London, local authorities caring for about 2,500 destitute asylum- seekers have placed them in whatever vacancies they could find in hotels around the capital. In any one DSS hotel there may be asylum-seekers belonging to many, far-flung boroughs. But because the boroughs are not allowed to offer money, they are obliged to deliver meals-on-wheels to each of their own refugees, often travelling miles across the city. So several different boroughs are sending daily prepared meals to the same hostel.
The Refugee Council runs a day centre in Vauxhall, but most of its users have literally not a penny. Some walk for four hours from Hounslow to get there, for lack of bus money. The Refugee Council today publishes a report on their plight and Nick Hardwick, the chief executive, says that he has never seen people in such abject poverty. However, undeterred, the Government is pursuing its case in the courts, still determined to remove even this last obligation to feed and house them.
The Home Secretary boasts of the remarkable success of his tough new benefit rules, since thousands of asylum-seekers have been frightened away to more hospitable countries. In 1995 there were 43,965 applicants - but once the benefits were cut, numbers fell to 27,875 last year. The Government claims that this proves they must all have been "bogus". However, the genuine must also have been deterred from seeking asylum here, since the same proportion - some 20 per cent - have been granted asylum this year, although the numbers have halved (unless, of course, some unspoken quota system is at work).
But that brings us to the question - that no one answers satisfactorily. What exactly is a genuine case, and what is a bogus one? We signed the UN Convention which gives this definition: "A person with a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion". Since then some countries, including ours, have added a more general "humanitarian" clause.
But what does that mean? It does not mean the 3.3 million Hong Kong Chinese, yet they have every reason to fear rule under the Chinese - as have the 1 billion Chinese. What of Rwanda and other African countries? Half the world lives under vile regimes and in legitimate fear of persecution.
We once had a clear image of a genuine asylum-seeker. He was an East European intellectual who wrote samizdat books, and we welcomed him to the British Museum reading room. The cold war gave us obvious enemies, and our enemy's enemy was our friend. But that world has gone, and it is far less clear which people we should take in from which country, in fear of their lives for exactly what reasons. One kind of death is much like another to the victim. To try to separate out the "bogus" from the "genuine" largely misses the point, though catching some blatant frauds may make us feel better about turning away so many in a genuinely perilous plight.
All of Europe, severally and combined, is tightening its borders, limiting its intake of refugees. Growing xenophobia in Germany and France is making the old tradition of welcoming victims of foreign despots harder to sell to the people. How many is the right number? That may be better negotiated across Europe, taking responsibilities together, as with the Bosnians, while offering humanitarian aid to ease the pressures that create great population flows.
But, however many or few, there will always be thousands we turn away. So the very least we can do in a wicked world is to treat them with absolute fairness, decency and justice while they are here. It will be a disgrace if any of these hunger strikers die while they are guests of Her Majesty: they are only demanding the most basic of civil rights.