Asylum-seekers hunger for justice

These are people convicted of no crime. Instead of considering the merits of their cause, the Government continues to vilify `bogus' refugees

Share
Related Topics
Today marks exactly a year since the Government removed the right of most asylum-seekers to social security benefits. Meanwhile, 12 asylum- seekers of various nationalities continue their hunger strike inside Rochester jail, protesting at being detained without a hearing and at being imprisoned in harsh conditions.

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

Recruitment Genius: Interactive / Mobile Developer

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - Midweight

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Front End Developer

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The UCAS clearing house call centre in Cheltenham, England  

Ucas should share its data on students from poor backgrounds so we can get a clearer picture of social mobility

Conor Ryan
A study of 16 young women performing light office work showed that they were at risk of being over-chilled by air conditioning in summer  

It's not just air conditioning that's guilty of camouflage sexism

Mollie Goodfellow
Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
10 best sun creams for kids

10 best sun creams for kids

Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

Tate Sensorium

New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

Remember Ashton Agar?

The No 11 that nearly toppled England
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks