Have we all become xenophobes?

'If asylum seekers can be presented as faceless bundles, so much the better for those who dismiss their claims on our sympathy'

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The latest memo by Tony Blair to be leaked by Benjy the binman - or whatever upstanding character it is who has taken on the scrutiny of this government - contained a telling passage barely reported at the time. "Asylum and crime," ran the prime minister's stream of consciousness. "These may appear unlinked to patriotism but they are: partly because they are toughness issues; partly because they reach deep into British instincts. We don't need to be irresponsibly populist; but we do need to be seen to care; and to act."

The latest memo by Tony Blair to be leaked by Benjy the binman - or whatever upstanding character it is who has taken on the scrutiny of this government - contained a telling passage barely reported at the time. "Asylum and crime," ran the prime minister's stream of consciousness. "These may appear unlinked to patriotism but they are: partly because they are toughness issues; partly because they reach deep into British instincts. We don't need to be irresponsibly populist; but we do need to be seen to care; and to act."

It's worth looking closely at this passage. For a start, isn't it revealing that for Mr Blair, crime and asylum must be linked? The fact that he sees asylum solely as a "toughness issue" rather than a "human rights issue" or a "decency issue" provides a vivid insight into the way his mind now works.

He believes that asylum is a matter that is linked to patriotism, and that it reaches "deep into British instincts". Indeed it does. But not necessarily in the way that he believes. Most British people do feel a responsibility to help those who have been forced to flee their home countries in fear of death or persecution.

"We do need to be seen to care, and to act." When I read that line, I had to stop and re-read it. At first I thought Mr Blair really meant that it was time to care; to care about others. Then I realised that he meant the opposite of what he was saying, that he meant the Government had to be seen not to care. And there are those telling words, "We do need to be seen..." For Tony Blair asylum policy is above all an attempt to ensure that the Government is seen in a certain way by certain sections of the media. But although that's the way he sees it, that's not the way it feels to many others; for thousands of people his asylum policy is a brutal reality.

They may be languishing in detention centres, or they may be living in hostels trying to survive on vouchers, or they may be facing deportation back to the countries where they fear for their lives. But they are usually nameless, usually faceless, invisible.

Indeed, if asylum-seekers can be presented as faceless bundles of migrants, so much the better for those who want to dismiss their individual claims on our sympathy. The 170 people who stepped off the hijacked Afghan aeroplane in February, or the people who were found in a lorry after a high-speed police chase over the weekend; if these groups are given no histories or faces, they have no claim on our humanity.

But what does this triumph of rhetoric over reality mean to the individuals concerned? At the end of last week, for instance, the appeals began on the cases of 31 of those Afghan passengers who had claimed asylum. The first to be heard were immediately refused. Who are they? One was a man who has already been beaten by the Taliban for serving a woman in a shop. After arriving in Britain he had said to the authorities: "If the worst comes to the worst you will have to kill me and send my body back to Afghanistan." Another was a woman aged 19, who wants to go to university but who had been forced out of school. She too has been beaten by the Taliban, for not covering her face properly. This didn't satisfy the judge, who decided that she did not have "a well-founded fear of persecution", even though the abuses of the Taliban against women are well documented.

In the already half-forgotten past, before Mr Blair had begun to confuse patriotism with xenophobia, these people would almost certainly have been allowed to stay in Britain. Because from 1990 to 1999, more than 90 per cent of people who applied for asylum from Afghanistan were accepted. It was only after the hijacking of the aeroplane, when Ann Widdecombe and the tabloids began to taunt the Government, that Britain's decent position in regard to the people fleeing from this cruel regime suddenly went into reverse - in June 2000, according to Amnesty International, only 30 per cent of Afghan asylum-seekers were accepted.

Has the situation for women in Afghanistan suddenly improved? Has cruel and inhuman treatment of prisoners there suddenly ended? Or has Mr Blair's decision to take up the rhetoric of the Tories simply enabled the Home Office to ignore the reality of the refugees' experiences?

In one of the previous memos leaked to the press, Mr Blair wrote this about asylum: "We are perceived to be soft... We need to be highlighting removals." For him "removals" are just a neat part of the Government's presentation, a way of avoiding the accusation of softness. But again, this policy is a grim reality to hundreds of asylum-seekers who are deported every week. Again, we need to ask, who are these people?

One pending deportation, out of the hundreds that the Home Office will carry out this week, is that of Amanj Gafor, a 34-year-old Kurd from Iraq. Gafor certainly seems to have valid reasons to fear persecution; his father was recently killed by the Iraqi government, and he and his family have received death threats. But unfortunately Gafor arrived in Britain after passing through Germany. He knew that he would be deported from Germany back to Iraq, since Germany has a record of refusing applications from Kurds, so he continued his journey on to Britain, in the hope of receiving a fairer hearing. A few years ago, the British government might have listened to his plea. But now the Home Office will not even consider his application, but will simply send him back to Germany.

The next attempt to deport Gafor is scheduled for this Thursday, when he is expecting to be forced on to on a Lufthansa flight to Germany. The Home Office has attempted to deport Gafor once before, and his case has been taken up by various campaigning groups, including the Bristol Defend Asylum Seekers Campaign.

Over the last few weeks, these campaigning groups have been developing new ways to prevent such inhumanity towards individuals. They have begun to go to airports to alert passengers on the relevant flights, they have begun to encourage the pilots to refuse to carry such deportees, and if necessary they attempt to board the aircraft and protest vociferously before take-off.

This new style of protests on behalf of asylum seekers combine direct action and public education with attempts to embarrass the relevant airlines. Is this the only way in which ordinary British people can show the Prime Minister that the most deeply held British instinct is not necessarily that of xenophobia? The protests against the Government's new asylum policies may not command much space in the media, but over the weekend demonstrations also took place in cities all over Britain. These demonstrations targeted the supermarkets which are participating in the voucher scheme which keeps refugees in grinding poverty.

At one point on Saturday I was standing outside Sainsbury's in Camden Town, next to the protesters who were waving their petitions and leaflets. One woman carrying her baby in a sling stopped to sign the petition against the voucher scheme. As she moved away I asked her why she had signed.

"I cried when Labour got in, I was so happy," she said. "Now I just can't believe that they are using people's lives as a political football. They think it's just a safe political game. It disgusts me."

n.walter@btinternet.com

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