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

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Office Administrator is requ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - Commercial Vehicles - OTE £40,000

£12000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion and growth of ...

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - Sheffield - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer position with a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Leader - Plasma Processing

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Operations Leader is required to join a lea...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Most powerful woman in British politics

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
All the major parties are under pressure from sceptical voters to spell out their tax and spending plans  

Yet again, the economy is the battleground on which the election will be fought

Patrick Diamond
Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders