Johann Hari: It's not just bombs. We should also fear what we are doing to our country

Here comes the backlash - everybody feels free to vilify and abuse asylum-seekers
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The Independent Online

Before the bombs, the tide of poison and bile directed towards asylum-seekers in this country was beginning, at long last, to recede. The general election - in which the Tory party said refugees carry disease and are responsible for MRSA - seemed to have left a bad taste even in right-wing mouths. And something extraordinary was happened: even the asylum-hating press rallied to the cause of Zimbabwean asylum-seekers who faced being deported by the Government back to Robert Mugabe's tyranny. "For pity's sake, let them stay!" cried a newspaper that has dedicated oceans of newsprint to describing refugees as thieving, scrounging, swan-baking monsters.

All this died in the massacres on the London Underground. After I had checked my friends and family were safe, I said a silent (and strictly atheist) prayer: please, please don't let the people who did this turn out to be asylum-seekers. It was bad enough that 56 civilians had just died, but what if the attacks also prompted a backlash and a wave of deportations? Then, far more people would be tortured or killed as a result of being forced back to tyrannies and war zones. The blast-zone would stretch all the way to Somalia and Zimbabwe.

My relief that the first wave of bombers was not refugees came too soon. The second wave of suspects turns out, after all, to have been here because of the asylum process. With this revelation, every notion of restraint on the part of the press evaporated. The British media had been admirably responsible in their coverage of the Islamist attackers. They had given reams of space to the moderate Muslim majority who hate the bombers and to the myriad Muslim victims of the attacks. There is no doubt this helped to restrain the number of attacks on Muslims and contributed to the humiliation of the BNP in every by-election since.

But refugees are evidently a different matter. Everybody feels free to vilify and abuse them. One "newspaper" put on its front page this week: "Bombers are all sponging asylum-seekers: Britain gave them refuge and now all they want to do is pay us back with death." There was no attempt to distinguish between a tiny number of insane people, and the overwhelming majority of asylum-seekers. The same newspaper then compounded this by inviting its readers to text an answer to the question: "Should all asylum-seekers now be turned back?" Well, they are all guilty because of the actions of two people, aren't they?

Nor did they explain even the most basic facts. Muktar Said Ibrahim and Yasin Hassan Omar did not "come to Britain to kill". They arrived in Britain when they were 14 and 11 years old respectively - and they were fleeing genuine persecution. No amount of weeding out, no stricter border controls, no tests could have kept them out, short of becoming the only developed country in the world to refuse to take genuine child refugees.

These men were radicalised and turned to jihadism here in Britain, just like the British-born fundamentalists who struck a fortnight earlier. They are part of the same problem. Is anybody seriously suggesting we begin to turn away our share of children who are running for their lives, on the off-chance they grow up to become murderers?

It's not hard to see why people want to believe this jihadism is the work of people from Somewhere Out There - that it's all an alien implant on our streets. But these lads spent their teenage and adult lives on the streets of north London. Their jihadism emerged from within British society, just as it has emerged in Leeds. If we do not see this reality, we will waste time on false solutions, making us all less safe and causing terrible collateral damage to refugees in the process.

If the situation falsely hinted at by the right-wing press - of Islamic fundamentalists deliberately using the asylum process to get into the country and to plot attacks - does actually come to pass, then the law already provides for their exclusion. As Imran Hussein of the Refugee Council explains: "The UN Convention on Refugees is very clear on this. People who plot or commit crimes against humanity can be refused refuge, even if they are honestly fleeing torture and persecution in their home country. There is no need to rework the laws or conventions. They are already in place." These powers can be used more forcefully without violating the UN Convention or declining a single worthy refugee.

But the solution to the problem posed by the London bombers lies elsewhere. The first wave of attacks made us determined to more fully integrate British Muslims in order to reduce the risk of creating another batch of alienated, crazed people who loathe the society in which they live. The second wave of attacks should give us the same determination to integrate refugees.

Right now, many refugees are trapped in sullen, sunken situations that make it impossible to assimilate. An Oxfam study recently found that asylum-seekers in this country live well below the poverty line, with 85 per cent unable to feed themselves and their children properly.

Just this week, a report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons documented ongoing abuse at Yarls Wood detention centre, where innocent people are held with fewer rights than convicted prisoners simply for seeking asylum. There - to give just one example - inspectors discovered an autistic five-year-old child who had not eaten for four days.

Yet instead of ending this radicalising, rancid abuse - and making us all safer - the Government is giving in to the backlash and making it even harder for refugees to assimilate. It used to be the case that once somebody had proven they were fleeing persecution, they were guaranteed five safe years in this country. This meant they could begin to slowly rebuild their broken lives, find employment and, yes, integrate a little.

No longer. From 30 August, even legitimate refugees will be subject to deportation at any time at the whim of the Home Office. If these bureaucrats decide your country is now safe - as they did with, say, John Reyes, who they sent back to Colombia last year to be promptly shot in the neck - then you are on the plane back, no questions asked.

"This means that it will be much harder for refugees to find jobs," the Refugee Council explains. "Who is going to employ somebody who could disappear at any time? It is a disaster for integration."

In Britain today, we face two dangers. There is the risk of what jihadist murderers might do to us. But there is also the risk of what we might do to our country out of fear. If this attack makes us deport even more refugees, if it makes us even more cruel and hard-hearted towards people fleeing tyranny, then the death-toll of 7/7 and 21/7 will rise even higher still. Why make them into the bombs that keep on killing?

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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