Paul Vallely: Political courage is needed to tackle our asylum myths

Migration has been one of the driving forces of global economic growth - so why do we see it with such dark irrationality?
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The Independent Online

Here's something you wouldn't have thought possible with a Cabinet full of Christian socialists. Over dinner the other night someone who spends their days working with refugees told me the story of a young man named Nsamu, from the Congo, a place he fled for fear that his name would be added to those of the five million people who have died in the current conflict there.

Here's something you wouldn't have thought possible with a Cabinet full of Christian socialists. Over dinner the other night someone who spends their days working with refugees told me the story of a young man named Nsamu, from the Congo, a place he fled for fear that his name would be added to those of the five million people who have died in the current conflict there.

Nsamu arrived in 1997 and applied for political asylum here. After going through the long process his application and subsequent appeals were all turned down. But he has not been sent back because the Congo is one of those countries which the Home Office deems "unsafe" for the return of individuals who are deemed not to have legitimate cause to be given asylum status here. "You say that you were in a room which was sprayed indiscriminately with bullets," as one official refusal explained. "The Secretary of State considers that, since the shooting was indiscriminate, you as an individual do not have a well-founded fear of persecution".

But under rules introduced by the Government - designed to send out the message to other potential asylum-seekers that they are not welcome - Nsamu is denied the right to work, the right to all income from welfare benefits, and the right to emergency accommodation. Nsamu therefore sleeps rough on park benches and in shop doorways - taking a place in a short-term hostel when one becomes available but being forced back onto the streets of London when he has exhausted the maximum stay allowed in each place. There is no prospect of an end to this limbo existence.

An election leaflet from the British National Party came through our door this week. Among its long list of inflammatory claims was one that "the flood" of asylum-seekers was leading the Government to plan the despoliation of England's green and pleasant countryside by building five giant new cities the size of Birmingham to house this influx of foreign incomers over the next 30 years. The establishment is fighting back against such alarmism. The Chief Constable of Northumbria has referred one BNP leaflet to the Crown Prosecution Service. The churches have launched a campaign which proclaims, without intended irony, "Don't be negative, don't vote BNP".

Yet it is easy to scapegoat the BNP here. The problem is much wider. Asylum is high up the list of concerns of the UK Independence Party. And for all their condemnations of the BNP both the Tories and Labour have policies on asylum which pander to tabloid prejudices about "swamping" which drive this debate. Indeed New Labour - which is rightly proud of its concern for the marginalised and socially excluded in other spheres - has on asylum acquiesced to policies of such illiberality that extremist instincts have become mainstream policy, despite the injunction which appears no fewer than 36 times in the scriptures which Jews and Christians share that we should make the stranger welcome.

Much is made in the debate of "bogus asylum seekers" who are really economic migrants in disguise. This is a curious business. For history teaches us that migration was a crucial part of the globalisation of the world economy which began in the mid 19th century and which brought a worldwide spurt in living standards of ordinary people. What it showed is that migrants transfer ideas, skills and technology to their new community, boosting stagnant birth-rates and labour pools, and helping the economies of their original homelands by remitting large amounts of money to relatives "back home".

At the end of the golden age of migration, from 1840-1910, some 10 per cent of people lived outside their country of birth. Today, for all the talk of floods and swampings, that figure is just 3 per cent. The truth is this is a time of new insularity. Although we talk of globalisation and the free movement of goods, capital, ideas and services, we have forgotten about the benefits of the free movement of people too. Yet if we are free to dump our surplus subsidised goods on them, we should not be that surprised if they want to dump their surplus people on us.

If immigrants will work, why not? Of course there are tricky side-issues to sort out. If our welfare system, rather than work, is the magnet that attracts incomers then we may have to adjust our system to re-base it on contributions or citizenship qualifications. But we should do so without resorting to treating those like Nsamu, who fall between the gaps, with base indignity.

What we need are leaders with the political courage to speak out on this, combating the false rhetoric which reinforces the dark irrationality of the message that we are right to be afraid of the stranger.

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