A patriotic nation treats refugees better than this

The issue of asylum is one that seems to come and go like a tide, but their struggles go on

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Republican as I am, I still liked aspects of the image of Britain that was being relayed at the beginning of the week. There was something about the royal funeral that seemed gentle and generous as well as old-fangled and ceremonious. Aside from whatever you thought about the Queen Mother herself, this moment made everyone think about the character of a nation, and how a country can lay down a decent image of itself to pass on to future generations.

Republican as I am, I still liked aspects of the image of Britain that was being relayed at the beginning of the week. There was something about the royal funeral that seemed gentle and generous as well as old-fangled and ceremonious. Aside from whatever you thought about the Queen Mother herself, this moment made everyone think about the character of a nation, and how a country can lay down a decent image of itself to pass on to future generations.

This was the smiling face of patriotism. The coverage of the funeral attempted to show a nation at ease with itself. Cameras lingered on brown faces in the crowd and black kids talking about the Royal Family in schools. It's easy to mock such moments, but it also shows a desire to suggest that what draws people together is sometimes stronger than what drives them apart.

But it is worth remembering that patriotism wears another face. Although we may like to think of ourselves as this gentle country, it doesn't take much to remember that this isn't always how others see us.

The issue of asylum is one that seems to come and go like a tide. Sometimes Home Office ministers are being castigated on BBC Radio 4's Today programme for the failures of the asylum system, sometimes reporters from ITV's News at Ten are camped out at Sangatte, sometimes the left is up in arms about the levels of support received by asylum-seekers. And then at other times, with little change in the actual circumstances, refugees become the forgotten people again.

But their struggles go on. Right now, for instance, well over a thousand asylum-seekers are in detention centres throughout Britain. We can't get an exact number, because the Home Office can't say how many people it has got locked up until four months have passed.

Politicians of both left and right have staked much of the success of their asylum policy on the idea that detention works – that by putting large numbers of individuals into detention, while their cases are being determined or while they await deportation, they can both deter more people from entering Britain and can deport more people from Britain. After the riot and fire at Yarl's Wood detention centre in February, the Home Secretary David Blunkett insisted that he still aimed to increase the numbers of asylum-seekers held in detention centres, and even went back to holding some in prisons.

Yet such a policy ignores the human cost of detention, a cost that chimes discordantly with our image of ourselves as a decent country. If you have ever talked to a refugee living in detention, you are immediately aware that you are actually talking to a prisoner – even though this prisoner has never been charged with any crime. A detainee tends to feel as if he or she has lost control over her life and her environment.

Humiliating conditions are common, from low levels of medical care for the sick to low levels of education for children. In Yarl's Wood, for instance, the disturbance reportedly broke out over a sick woman in her fifties who was handcuffed and had been waiting for medical treatment for three days.

If you doubt that detention weighs cruelly on people who often have already suffered, you have to ask yourself why asylum-seekers themselves are becoming more desperate in their behaviour. As more people are held behind locked gates, riots and hunger strikes are becoming more common. Earlier this week more than 40 people who are being held at the Dungavel immigration detention centre in Lanarkshire started a hunger strike in protest at the length of time it is taking to resolve their cases.

Politicians seem to suggest that detention centres are no more than secure hotels where people whose fate is already decided are kept for a few days before they are deported. But in fact more than a quarter of those in detention are held for more than four months while their cases are being processed.

One family whose case has been taken up by campaigners is currently being held in Dungavel. The Garzova family, who are Roma, have claimed that they experienced attacks on themselves and their property in Slovakia.

Last week, the 13-year-old daughter in the family, Nikola Garzova, wrote a letter to Mr Blunkett, in which she explained that she was spending her second birthday in a row in detention; last year she was in Oakington detention centre, and this year she is in Dungavel.

"My family is in a sad and bad situation," she wrote. "My birthday was really sad, so is my family." Nikola's youngest sister, who is nearly two, has physical and mental disabilities, and needs medical care, but Nikola herself is academically intelligent and desperate to get back into school.

I don't know whether her family's application for asylum was justified or not. But I do know that we shouldn't just see people like this as a threat to our society, a threat that has to be locked away. After all, if she were allowed to remain here, a teenager like Nikola, with all her bright enthusiasm for education and advancement, is far more likely to be a contributor to our society than a drain on it. A book that is to be published later this summer reminds us of one particular period when refugees brought unexpected strengths to British society. The Hitler Emigres, by Daniel Snowman (Chatto & Windus) explores the legacy of a generation of asylum-seekers, from Walter Gropius to Paul Hamlyn, showing how they painted bright spots of cultural and political colour on to an insular nation. That idea is pretty close to my heart, I have to admit, since my grandparents were refugees who came to this country from Germany in 1939. My grandfather came with no more than the mythical "clothes he stood up in", but immediately forged his own professional life.

I'm not sure why it is so often dismissed as liberal cant that refugees today should be seen as an infusion of energy rather than a drain on our resources. Despite popular images of floods of illiterate, unskilled asylum-seekers, a third of refugees, according to past government research, have university degrees or professional qualifications. Right now, a United Nations conference in Madrid is debating the possibility that the greatest threat to the quality of life in developed countries is the ageing of their populations.

As many commentators are now trying to argue – though without any success to date in terms of social policy – in such a situation it is self-interested as well as humane to pull young refugees quickly into the heart of our society rather than push them out into the fringes. And that really shouldn't be as difficult as this Government makes out.

For instance, while the NHS is pursuing an expensive campaign to recruit much-needed doctors from European Union countries, the BMA and the Refugee Council have set up a voluntary register for refugee doctors who are living in Britain. More than 500 doctors have so far put their names forward, most of them from Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. A new university training course has been set up to help them get into the British medical system, although it will only prepare 30 doctors each year for preliminary tests.

The extension of schemes such as this would do a lot both for refugees and for us. We don't have to demean ourselves and refugees in dealing with only the "problem" they present. We can decide instead to draw on the potential of resourceful groups of people. That might be the sign of a nation truly at ease with itself.

n.walter@btinternet.com

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