Deborah Orr: A simple-minded politician, asylum-seekers and the complex realities of global politics

Critics of Margaret Hodge have failed to understand that 'need' is not an easy equation
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Refugees don't come to Britain any more, do they? We get asylum-seekers now instead. Refugees? Well we still see them, in camps, on television, driven from their homes by war, famine, pestilence or the other one, and they really do have nothing. Asylum-seekers have something though, don't they? They have an agenda, and a list of rights.

They want something, and they want it from us. Not all of them, although much rhetoric implies that this is the case. The US committee for refugees and immigrants estimates that the current total of displaced persons is more than 34 million, a third of them seeking asylum outside their own borders. The latest figures, from 2005, confirm that we granted asylum to a not overwhelming 11,000 of those refugees.

Refugees, when you think about it, had only a brief existence in the mainstream British idiolect. Given status as a legal group during the Second World War, their irksome presence here was partly solved by the enthusiastic embrace of Zionism, and the creation of Israel. Solved for us anyway, in a very narrow sense, because it is something of a cruel historical joke that the only people in the history of the world to have been granted refugee status because they are the descendants of refugees are the children and grandchildren of the Palestinians who fled Israel in 1948.

Back then there were fewer than three-quarters of a million of them. Now, according to the UNRWA, the UN agency that records their claims, there are more than 4.3 million, many still in camps awaiting a world citizenship that only an accommodation of seemingly impossible generosity of spirit - not just from Israel but from the whole of the Middle East - can deliver to them. The recent turbulence has only intensified their plight. The attack by Lebanon on the Nahr el-Bared camp is attracting international attention. But the hundreds expelled after the fall of Saddam from Iraq remain on the Syrian border, denied citizenship or even entry, which is in line with the policy of the Arab League. The world denies asylum - or uses it to make a political point, or tries to shunt it next door - at its peril.

Presumably it's people who have successfully sought asylum in Britain that Margaret Hodge is most bothered by when she talks about those who are "new migrants" and not "indigenous". Asylum-seekers, after all, don't have a right to council housing and are generally housed in detention centres, like naughty schoolchildren, where they sit about all day, self-harming.

And Europeans are indigenous to Europe, after all, and we Europeans can all move freely, and do. Anyway, access to benefits from the new European countries is restricted already because of fears about economic migrancy, which is why they fight to spend a night in a loo. Members of the Commonwealth, by the same token, are indigenous to the Commonwealth, and the idea that they might have anything but a highly circumscribed right to live in Britain is long gone. If Ms Hodge is unwilling to explain this to her constituents, then she is in the wrong party, and can't expect David Cameron to welcome her with open arms either.

Except that dumping people in a political wing you don't like, when they express views you don't like, doesn't really work any more, if it ever did. Ms Hodge, in truth, is indeed expressing the concerns of those she represents. And those among her constituents who are saying such things are not easily pigeon-holed as racists and extremists either.

A friend of mine, a single graduate in his 30s, had the most awful time when he tried to live and work in London, relying first on the hospitality of friends, and eventually living for a winter on an acquaintance's damp, unheated houseboat. He became less employable by the hour. Liberal as they come, in theory, he shamefacedly bemoaned the fact that "new migrants" got social homes when he could only ever hope to be housed under the Homelessness Act or the Mental Health Act, and that even then it would probably be in a hostel. Eventually, he had a breakdown - it had been a long time coming - and went home to the shires to be cared for by his elderly mother. Hostels are hard places for the demotivated and depressed to live.

The voices opposed to Margaret Hodge are right when they talk of "need" having to be the only consideration as one allocates scarce homes to the 1.6 million hopeful householders on the social housing lists. They are right too when they point - finally - to the failure of this Government in 10 years to grasp the problem of the acute shortage of affordable homes. But they are wrong when they throw the baby out with the bathwater, and fail to understand that "need" is not an easy equation, or one we have got right, either.

An item on Newsnight on Monday night, of a magnitude of significance that is simply breathtaking, challenged the received wisdom that the massive over-representation of black men in secure psychiatric wards in Britain was due to "institutionalised racism". It posited instead that there were perfectly sound reasons why black men in Britain might be particularly susceptible to mental illness.

One factor was simply that the fear of being labelled racist influenced mental health professionals against diagnosing mental illness in black men in the early stages, even though it is well known, or ought to be, that acknowledged difficulties, such as poverty, and the poor educational attainment that often accompanies it, are suffered disproportionately by black boys. It was also pointed out that migrants, even second- or third-generation ones, are more likely to suffer mental illness, whatever ethnicity they came from or went to.

Despite this, much of the time black men are referred to the mental health services only when things have got completely out of hand, when they have become detached from family and community because of their escalating troubles and end up under the auspices of the criminal justice system. Any idea what chance a single black man - or any single man - now has of gaining the security of a social home, however great his need? Let's just say it's not a big chance. Single and vulnerable men, in the hierarchy of need, are nowhere.

Is there a parallel between the extreme criminal behaviour we see among black men in inner cities, which urges so many to insist that more punishment and more vilification be heaped upon them, and the extreme fundamentalism behaviour that has emerged in some Palestinian camps, and has emboldened Lebanon to attack, as Israel does?

I think there is, and I think too that the small but sociologically significant number of British Afro-Caribbean men who convert to fundamentalism Islam is a huge heads-up to that seemingly outlandish connection. Margaret Hodge is to be berated for her simple-mindedness. But the global landscape of "need" is a great deal more complex than even the most strident of her critics seem quite willing to grasp.