Be free to leave, although you'll be arrested if you do

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The Independent Online

These camps then, that the Tories plan to introduce for asylum- seekers, are not camps but, they claim, "reception centres". Which sounds lovely and cosy, as if there will be muzak in the lifts, and a smiling receptionist who says, "If you and your family would like to take a seat, someone will be down in just a moment to deport you. Would you like coffee while you're waiting?"

These camps then, that the Tories plan to introduce for asylum- seekers, are not camps but, they claim, "reception centres". Which sounds lovely and cosy, as if there will be muzak in the lifts, and a smiling receptionist who says, "If you and your family would like to take a seat, someone will be down in just a moment to deport you. Would you like coffee while you're waiting?"

Andrew Lansley, shadow Cabinet Office minister, said repeatedly on Newsnight that the camp would not be a prison because internees would be "free to leave, though they'll be arrested if they do". I think they had a similar rule in Colditz.

And Tory chairman Michael Ancram said that in the camps "there would be food and clothing". What sort of deterrent is that? If these people in Somalia know that when their village is burned down, they only have to nip to Dover where they'll be allowed to wear clothes and eat, they'll all be over here.

You're allowed to write anything at all when it comes to asylum-seekers. One recent press campaign set out to expose the East European town which is kept going entirely from the money bogus asylum-seekers beg on the London Underground. Presumably, when the town councillors meet to set the budget, they tip up all the plastic cups and count the change, then decide whether there's enough to open a new library. If there's a particularly good month on the Bakerloo Line, the town gets an extra dustcart.

More chillingly plausible is the Tory leaflet that says that money is being spent on asylum-seekers while cuts are made in "social services provisions for the elderly". And if there was one ideal that summed up the Tories' 18 years in power, it was their obsession with providing social services for the elderly. Next they'll say, "if we were in power, that money wasted on asylum-seekers would have been used to subsidise the mining industry".

Hague claimed in his speech that he welcomed genuine asylum-seekers, as set out by the convention of 1951. As an example, he said: "Someone who had climbed over the Berlin Wall clearly came within the scope of the convention." But why would anyone have wanted to climb over the Berlin Wall, when the East German republic was a place you were free to leave, although you were shot if you did?

Hague's point was that it's our duty to be intolerant to asylum-seekers, in order to provide tolerance for those already here. Because that's what happens in history. The more politicians scream about immigrants abusing our country, the more tolerant we become. This is probably what Milosevic said. "We're expelling these Albanians so that the law-abiding ones can feel safer than ever." If you see someone kicking a cat in the street, they're obviously a cat lover, concerned that people's affection for cats will diminish if they see too many of them abusing our hospitality without being kicked.

Hague insists his outburst isn't racist. This is a modern trend, to claim racism isn't racist. David Irving says he's not racist, and so does Jorg Haider. It's as if a football supporter said, "just because I chanted `Chelsea, Chelsea' all afternoon doesn't mean I support Chelsea."

To answer whether the current tide of abuse about asylum-seekers is racist, you just have to ask whether there would be similar howls of outrage if Zimbabwean landowners started arriving at Dover. The antidote to racism is not more racism but opposition to it. Which was miserably lacking in Home Office minister Barbara Roche's reply to Hague's proposal, which was to complain about how much these camps would cost. If Barbara Roche had been in Mississippi in the Sixties, she'd have taken on the Ku Klux Klan by saying "think how much money you're wasting on sheets and rope."

Immigration and integration is never the cause of racism, but one of the most certain ways of countering it. Few people in inner cities, who live and work alongside diverse ethnic groups, share the attitudes that many people held in the Fifties, when 49 per cent of the British population had never met a black person.

Or to put it another way, during the Napoleonic wars, so the story goes, a French ship was found by the coast of Hartlepool, deserted except for a monkey. So the good people of Hartlepool, whose only point of reference was cartoons depicting Frenchmen as monkeys, thought the monkey was a Frenchman. So they hanged it. Which was disastrous for the monkey, but nearly as bad for Hartlepool, because that's all the place is known for, especially among other people in the north-east. A professor from Hartlepool could one day be announcing he's discovered the cure for all diseases, and a Geordie will shout "hey, you're the twats who hanged that monkey." If only the town council had allowed a few of them to live there the year before.

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