The tide of asylum-seekers is a sign of our success

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The Independent Online

5 of 28 As political values go, patriotism is Janus-faced. If it wasn't, why should it be a matter of national shame, rather than intense pride, that Britain is as attractive as it is to those, whether voluntarily or not, seeking to resettle from other countries? Which is one reason why Simon Hughes has performed a useful service by accusing both the main parties of playing the "race card" over asylum and immigration. If nothing else, it should help by example to break, in an impressively unfrightened way, the apparently inviolable rule of mainstream party politics that immigration can only be a negative for whichever party is in power.

And in doing so, he may help the Government to be just a little less defensive in arming itself against what is, by any stretch of the imagination, a truly opportunistic appeal by the Conservative Party to the lowest common dominator in its local government manifesto. Let's just hear those words again: "Labour has made this country a soft touch for the organised asylum racketeers who are flooding the country with bogus asylum seekers."

Bogus? A word that miserably stereotypes a hundred different stories of pain, aspiration for a better life, hunger, the entrepreneurial spirit, and all those other reasons for emigration through the ages, and then wraps them up with sheer, unadulterated criminality.

Flood? Well, it's true that asylum applications have risen from about 4,000 when the Berlin Wall fell, to about 70,000 a year. A lot, no doubt, if you live in Kent or some hard-pressed London borough. But, taken as a whole, rather less than the combined gates of the Villa-Leeds and Liverpool- Tottenham games on Sunday. Or less than 0.1 per cent of the country's population.

Soft touch? Or, as Mr Hague recently suggested, the softest touch in the developed world? Hardly. It isn't just that non-government organisations are angry that Jack Straw has cut from 90 per cent to 70 per cent the proportion of income support to which asylum-seekers are entitled while they wait for their claims to be processed. Or that they are forced to use vouchers instead of cash. Britain is actually, per head of population, sixth in line among European Union countries in the number of asylum-seekers it allows to stay - on average, something between 20 and 30 per cent of those who actually apply.

It's true, of course, that the British courts have on occasions interpreted rather more liberally than those in France and Germany the criteria for applications under the international 1951 convention governing asylum. But here's an unpalatable point for the Tory right. The Kosovo war, still easily the biggest factor in the rise in asylum claims, showed that an agreed system of burden-sharing between EU countries helps to spread the strain - to the UK's advantage. To make that happen as a matter of course would require sensible EU-wide legislation to ensure that some of the less "hospitable" countries take their share. Whether Mr Hague is ready for that is far from clear.

This doesn't mean there isn't a problem. There are "organised asylum racketeers". Some of them might be smuggling drugs instead of people if the penalties were higher. But the real reason is that the Home Office's immigration department has long been one of Whitehall's basket cases, sometimes vicious but more often gruesomely incompetent. You can argue - persuasively - that the criteria for allowing applications have been too narrow, but the one universally agreed truth is that you cannot begin to solve the problem until the processing is speeded up. And this at least - from a very low base - the government has begun to do, intending to complete the stages, including appeal, within six months from next year. And perhaps it needs some more money to make it even quicker. For nobody responsible thinks that you can lift controls all together. No developed country, including the US - where state provision is lower than in the UK and which is historically the most open country in the Western world - has done that.

But this is where Mr Hughes's timely words come in. For those controls cannot, surely, be justified any longer on the rather specious grounds of maintaining racial harmony. Conventional wisdom, one to which the Government itself rather too enthusiastically still adheres, is that a "firm and fair" immigration policy is necessary to prevent racial tension in Britain.

That argument has been used before - and very disreputably indeed. An important new book by Louise London, Whitehall and the Jews 1933-1948, based on the cold, indisputable evidence of documents from the Public Records Office, punctures some of the myths about Britain's supposedly blameless past for tolerance and hospitality towards refugees. Ms London shows that Britain's inter-war record, at least so far as adult Jewish refugees are concerned, hardly conformed to such a tradition, if indeed it had ever existed. More topically still, it shows that the main excuse advanced by officialdom in rejecting applications from Jewish refugees was that it would encourage anti-semitism to let them in.

The language of race is particularly inappropriate as far as immigration and asylum are concerned. Aggressive beggars are not only a minority of asylum-seekers, false or genuine; they are also a minority of a distinctive, and almost entirely European, group. (You don't see Somalis begging from door to door or making a nuisance of themselves in public parks.) But that isn't the main point. Which is that, in applying a sense of proportion to this problem, we should start to recognise why 70,000 people a year want to come here every year, often, though admittedly not always, from countries devastated by internal problems. The first is, as recent statistics from the Home Office conclusively show, there is a direct relation between immigration and the health of the economy. So far from "taking our jobs", most immigrants, as they always have done, begin on the ladder by doing the jobs no one else wants to do or, in the case of some ultra high-skilled software jobs done by Indians - are capable of doing.

In other words, a lot of immigration and so-called bogus asylum-seeking is a direct tribute to Britain's economic success. Secondly, it's a tribute to the importance of learning English, one of this country's greatest and most exportable assets. Thirdly, at least in part, it's a tribute to the way in which Britain, at least urban Britain, has become much more cosmopolitan, and for the most part racially harmonious. Fourthly, at least as far as Balkan migration is concerned, it testifies to the high public profile adopted by the British government in the Kosovo war. All these things are matters to rejoice about.

That isn't to say that governments don't have to protect their citizens, especially their poorest citizens, from unacceptable pressures on services. But it is to remember that the language of the debate on asylum should reflect the fact that the majority of immigrants, economic migrants or refugees, are here to contribute as well as to benefit from a thriving economy and a cohesive society. For more than a century the US has taken pride in that. Why can't we? 5 of 28