The image of three young Kosovans, found dead, roped together, at the foot of a Glasgow high-rise, deserves to go down in the annals of British shame alongside the pictures of the Chinese cockle-pickers who drowned in Morecambe Bay. In their detail, of course, the tragedies are quite different. The Kosovans, it appears, were failed asylum-seekers facing imminent deportation. The Chinese were smuggled into Britain and exploited by illegal gang-masters.
In their generality, however, they are part of the same national scandal. In both cases, people from benighted parts of the world were misled into believing they would find a land of opportunity, if not milk and honey, when what they actually entered was a land of absent authority, incapable of either protecting them or acting on difficult decisions. Given that the Chinese had no legal status here and the Kosovans were within the system from start to their despairing end, it is their suicide that arguably represents the greater failing.
Now there are two standard responses to such events. From the liberal left, you will hear pleas for greater tolerance and humanity towards pretty much anyone who wants to come to Britain to work to improve their lot. On the right you will hear arguments for more restrictions on immigration across the board, plus a further tightening of border controls and asylum procedures.
What is heard all too rarely, though, is any plea for the laws as they stand to be properly applied, with clarity and competence. There is at least a chance that this would have saved the lives of both the Chinese and the Kosovans – not necessarily in a way that would have given them what they wanted, but in a way that would have been fair and upheld the integrity of the law. That is not, for all the regulatory changes made, what we see at present.
What we have seen ever since the 2006 revelation that the Home Office had built up a backlog of almost half a million asylum cases, is a series of attempts to mask the gravity of the situation by dint of removing it as far as possible from the public gaze. Thus a blind eye was turned to illegal workers in thrall to equally illegal gang-masters, so long as they did not draw attention to themselves by actually getting killed. National Insurance, tax payments, decent living accommodation, minimum wage – forget all those safeguards of a civilised society. The shadow economy, so far as it employed illegal foreigners, was left largely to stew in its own juice.
The priority with asylum seekers has been identical. The policy of dispersal was designed to lift some of the cost from London and the South-east. But exiling asylum-seekers to condemned estates in Glasgow and elsewhere also had the – surely not unwelcome – side-effect of placing Kosovans, Somalis, Tamils and others out of sight, and so out of the popular mind. There was a bit of aggro with the natives to begin with, but trouble in a godforsaken part of Glasgow and trouble within a bus ride of Parliament are different things in the mind of an embarrassed national government. The urgency of a resolution diminishes with every mile travelled up the West Coast Main line.
So, lo and behold, despite all the commitments, targets and clean-start principles introduced in the wake of the 2006 figures, a new backlog of 30,000 asylum cases has built up – even though the number of claims, according to official figures, has been falling. The secret to this apparent contradiction lies in the number of reviews and appeals that follow the initial request. There now seems not the slightest chance that either the original, or the new, backlog will be eliminated, as intended, by 2011.
Now, I know well, not least from my familiarity with Soviet-era dissidents, that asylum claims can be complex and, where war zones are concerned, the complexities multiply. But it still seems to me that several changes need to be made, without any need to change the law.
The first is a narrowing of the practical definition of asylum, as applied by the UK. No country can admit everyone who claims a justified fear of persecution. Perhaps some of the campaigners who believe Britain is too mean might sponsor the legal settlement of those they believe to be hard done by, rather than encouraging their eternal, taxpayer-funded, appeals.
The second is the abbreviation of that same appeals process. Better advice for new arrivals would reduce the number of justified appeals. Only a minority succeed even then, but one success encourages others to try and the process can go on for years. Which is why there needs to be a third change. All who claim asylum should be detained until their case is resolved. A target deadline of a month would concentrate minds on both sides and eliminate the need for "dispersal". The three Kosovans would have known their fate much sooner.
At present, cases take so long that, even though the majority are refused, it is by then at least as cruel to threaten deportation as it would have been to deny asylum at the start. Such summary justice would inevitably draw protest. But would it be any less humane than what passes for an asylum system now?