Will this Act save the lives of refugees?

Maybe the Human Rights Act will help us recognise it isn't just people like us who have rights, but even the most vulnerable

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What a momentous change is occurring today! Now we are about to create a new culture of fundamental rights in Britain. Or so Cherie Booth, enthusiastic supporter of the Human Rights Act, would have it. Yes indeed, what a momentous change! Now parliamentary democracy is threatened and our legal system will fall into chaos. Or so Ann Widdecombe, passionate enemy of the Human Rights Act, would have it.

What a momentous change is occurring today! Now we are about to create a new culture of fundamental rights in Britain. Or so Cherie Booth, enthusiastic supporter of the Human Rights Act, would have it. Yes indeed, what a momentous change! Now parliamentary democracy is threatened and our legal system will fall into chaos. Or so Ann Widdecombe, passionate enemy of the Human Rights Act, would have it.

Either way, it's all very, very exciting then? For most people, the excitement is probably just a touch muted. Neither dancing in the streets nor drowning your sorrows seems quite appropriate. It's hard to be convinced that a new culture will suddenly sprout wings in Britain. Tell me, do the inscrutable, elderly conservatives who sit as judges look like the leaders of a revolution?

It's also hard to believe that parliamentary democracy is under threat. Even after today, if existing laws conflict with the rights in the Act, those existing laws will still take precedence. Tellingly, if you're wondering whether a revolution is at hand, the Act has been in force in Scotland for more than a year, and out of the first 587 actions brought, only 17 succeeded.

It's particularly hard to feel excited when you look at some of the cases likely to be brought under the Act. Is it so scandalous, in a global human- rights context, that drivers picked up after the event for speeding offences should be asked who was driving their vehicles at the time of the offence? A couple of drivers recently had their fines overturned because a court decided that they had been forced to incriminate themselves, thus preventing them from having a fair trial under the terms of the Act.

Similarly, I'm sure that the issue of whether strict school uniforms infringe upon a pupil's freedom of expression is also a truly worthy one - but forgive me if I can't get wildly worked up about the idea that an action along those lines might be mounted.

But there is one area where the Human Rights Act is making people's hearts beat faster. These are not just lawyers getting excited about some lucrative new work, but individuals who are hoping that the new Act might, literally, save their lives. These people are refugees.

Over the last few years, refugees have become the disposable people, people who embarrass the politicians and who can be detained and deported at will. Nobody talks of refugees as they would about British people; no politician feels that they should treat refugees with the same respect that they should give to ordinary members of the electorate.

It was bizarre to hear politicians last week suddenly pretending to be the friends of refugees. Tony Blair said at the Labour conference that he would never "exploit the asylum issue", and Michael Portillo said the same a few days later on Question Time. And then in the next breath, Blair is insisting that the degrading voucher system works very well, thank you very much, and Portillo is explaining that the Conservatives would keep all asylum-seekers in enormous detention camps.

But this kind of easy hypocrisy won't be quite so simple to sustain in the future. What politicians don't seem to have recognised yet is that by passing this Human Rights Act, they are not only giving a system of positive rights to British people, but to everyone in this country, regardless of their nationality and immigration status.

What does this mean in practice? Most starkly, it may mean the difference between life and death. At the weekend, I met one individual refugee who is hoping that the Human Rights Act will give him a chance of being able to do more than evade a parking ticket or a speeding fine or a restrictive uniform. He wants the chance to live.

Metin comes from Turkey, where he was arrested for his political activities in Istanbul in 1995. He was imprisoned for 10 days and tortured. He was beaten all over his body and on the soles of his feet. "I could taste the blood in my mouth," he tells me. "They put their fingers in my eye and I couldn't see." It's always extraordinary to hear such tales from somebody sitting next to you, talking quietly and looking normal, in a sweatshirt and jeans. In the little room where we were sitting I suddenly had to try and imagine a prison, men with sticks, and this young man writhing on the floor.

Metin ended up vomiting blood and unable to walk. After he was released, he was in hospital for weeks. As soon as he could, he fled Turkey and came straight to Britain. After he left, his flatmate was arrested, tortured and questioned about Metin's whereabouts, and other members of his political group have died in detention.

Metin has been in this country for three years and has exhausted all the existing legal channels for applying for asylum. And yet, as his current solicitor explained, he has never had a fair trial because vital documents - his hospital records, newspaper reports of his political activities - were just never considered by the courts. A mess-up by his previous lawyers, a hard-hearted attitude by the immigration tribunal, and a miscarriage of justice takes place - but what redress did Metin have? He has a foreign name and a foreign background, and he is one of thousands; who would ever notice when the deportation order came to send him back again?

He has become resigned to waiting for the moment when he would be forced on to the aeroplane and back to the Turkish police who are waiting to have another go at him. "That would be the end," he says. Fear seems to have frozen his life, he lives from day to day, waiting for the end.

But now, Metin can have another chance at life. He can appeal to stay in Britain under his newly established human rights; especially the right not to face torture or inhuman punishment. Under the new Act, even if a person has been unable to prove their refugee status under the strict terms of the UN Refugee Convention, if they can show that they face a real risk of torture, they cannot be returned to their home country. Metin's current solicitor, Kieran O'Rourke, has high hopes for many refugees who have found that the immigration authorities here have rejected their applications on pettifogging grounds, and yet who would undergo torture or other inhuman punishments if they were returned to their home countries.

"He clearly faces torture, he would be imprisoned in horrific conditions if he is sent back to Turkey," O'Rourke says. "Now, the Human Rights Act compels the courts to consider whether the immigration authorities' decision breaches the individual's fundamental human rights. This is what makes Monday a watershed for anyone who has come to the UK saying, protect me. At last the UK is saying, yes, we will protect your rights, your right to a fair trial, your right not to face torture, your right to liberty, your right to family life. It should have a huge impact."

Maybe Cherie Booth is right - maybe this new legislation will help to encourage a new culture, in which we come to recognise that it isn't just people like us who have rights, but even the most vulnerable, the least powerful people in the country. When I was talking to Metin, I caught a breath of the potential importance of this new legislation. It's easy to be a bit dismissive of the Human Rights Act, to call it merely a jackpot for rich lawyers. But if it saves just one of these disregarded lives, it means rather more than that.

n.walter@btinternet.com

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