Sonali Naik: Blunkett's bogus asylum system

The numbers are down. But what do they add up to?
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The Independent Online

It was Mahatma Gandhi who said that a civilisation would be judged by the treatment of its minorities; Vaclav Havel observed that the treatment of Roma was "a litmus test not of democracy but of civil society". Both men's words are worth bearing in mind in the current debate about asylum-seekers.

Judging by recent statements from both politicians and the media, one could be forgiven for thinking that we live in a racist and prejudiced world in which it is acceptable to stigmatise and discriminate against one group in our society, and in the process grossly and unfairly misrepresent them. Asylum-seekers are routinely demonised and portrayed as "bogus", and as liars and cheats. The very phrase "asylum-seeker" has become an acknowledged term of abuse.

The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, claims that his opinions on the subject are informed by the views of ordinary people living in, among other places, his own constituency. He should not make the mistake of thinking that public opinion can be equated with the hysterical and irrational condemnation of a category of people without proper reason or justification. We should look to our politicians for leadership, not for reaction.

Blunkett says that the diminution of the numbers seeking asylum since the introduction of the Nationality Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 last November signals the success of his policy. However, his trumpeting should leave people questioning how it is possible to remove such numbers from the statistics without an explanation as to the fate of those "missing persons". Others may also want to question precisely how he was able to reduce numbers in so short a time (given that the significant measures were introduced only in January and April this year).

Taking away from certain groups of asylum claimants (in a context in which asylum-seekers are not allowed to work) the right to be housed and fed is likely to have had a significant impact on the numbers claiming asylum. These people will be unable to support themselves legitimately, and are likely to be forced into an even more marginalised underclass. Without rights, they are open to exploitation and a life of fear - fear of returning to where they have come from and fear of remaining without proper access to a system to regularise their position. Still, at least they are invisible in the asylum statistics.

The Secretary of State appears to believe that it is legitimate to prevent genuine refugees from entering the UK at all. That is the real consequence of his policy, and it demonstrates that there is no real proper commitment to our international obligations.

For example, thousands of people opposed to President Mugabe in Zimbabwe are suffering persecution at the hands of his evil regime. In November last year a visa requirement was imposed on all Zimbabweans seeking to travel to this country. So, despite the current suspension of people being sent back to that country following UNHCR advice that it was not safe to do so, this move by the Home Office means that the only people able to come here from that country and seek protection have been forced to lie about their situation. This has happened at the most dangerous times of all for political activists in Zimbabwe - that is, in the period immediately prior to, and following, the elections in March last year).

If you're claiming asylum, it's impossible to get a visa. It's even been held to be lawful to discriminate against Roma wanting to enter the UK to claim asylum. This is achieved, quite simply, by refusing them the right to travel here. In addition, the practice of successive governments has imposed visa regimes on countries such as the former Yugoslavia and Colombia at the height of their internal conflicts. That is one way in which numbers are reduced. But is it fair or humane? Those practices only play into the hands of the people-traffickers, whose business no one wants to see increase.

The former Yugoslavia, Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Somalia together account for the majority of asylum applicants to the UK. Whether they come within the strict legal definition of a refugee, should be granted humanitarian protection, or some other status rather than being returned home, is something for the policy-makers and courts to determine. Within that group a person may be an economic migrant, a refugee, or have family reasons for wishing to remain in the UK. So, does that make him or her "bogus"?

The Government policy on immigration and asylum should properly recognise the positive benefit and contribution of migration and the reality of the need for it. Take the case of a doctor from Kosovo who came here during the conflict. Her husband suffers from severe mental health problems as a result of torture he experienced there. She has family here. Should she be refused asylum and categorised as a scrounger? Or should she be given the right to work in the UK in our understaffed health service? Logic does not always dictate the outcome.

While some people may think that the recent policy measures implemented are legitimate tools with which to defeat the number of asylum-seekers coming to the UK or to Europe as a whole, the danger signals are there for us all. It is clear from the Home Secretary's comments that he regards the use of identity cards and the withdrawal of support as the key elements of a successful policy.

The debate over immigration control will shift to the question of whether it is right to compel people to carry identity cards. This is seen by many as acceptable, because this already happens in many other European countries. However, many people fail to ask exactly what the impact is of identity cards in those countries that already have them. Do they bring about a reduction in the number of refugees? Do those states have harmonious race relations as a result? Is there an increased likelihood of discrimination against ethnic minorities? In a recent Demos report on managed migration, the think-tank concluded that government attempts to prove to the electorate that it has immigration "under control" could undermine the very thing we hold dear - an open society. And that, surely, is a conclusion we should all be concerned about.

The ease with which the rights of refugees can be eroded sets a dangerous precedent. Those who hold their own freedom precious should speak loudly and clearly in defence of the rights of all people - before it is too late.

Sonali Naik is chair of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants