For how much longer will we treat asylum-seekers worse than our dogs?

'2000 will be remembered for the most iniquitous asylum laws ever passed by a Labour government'
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The Independent Online

A pretty man with golden hair tried to pick me up on the Piccadilly line the other day, and very nice the experience was too. My dear husband thought I ought to have been furious, but sisters who have reached my age will understand my excitement. What drew him to me (he claimed) was the bold, yellow badge on my coat collar.

A pretty man with golden hair tried to pick me up on the Piccadilly line the other day, and very nice the experience was too. My dear husband thought I ought to have been furious, but sisters who have reached my age will understand my excitement. What drew him to me (he claimed) was the bold, yellow badge on my coat collar.

It is shaped like a hand and says: "Hands Off My Friend" on the palm and "Defend Asylum-Seekers" on the thumb. Issued by the National Assembly Against Racism, the badge will officially be launched on 23 January at the House of Commons by a wide coalition of people who disagree about many things, but who loathe and fear the way this society and its political élite treats asylum-seekers and economic migrants.

And that is the point which needs to be banged into the dumb and xenophobic heads of the politicians who think that, in order to placate the majority of British citizens, they must be seen to be ever more brutish towards people who have dared to come to our shores to seek a better life. When will they realise that it is not only unkempt anarchists, revolutionary lefties and never-satisfied race warriors who oppose these policies?

I think that the year 2000 will be remembered for the most iniquitous asylum laws ever passed in this country by a Labour government (this was one reason why I left the Labour Party last March), and for disgraceful, deliberately incendiary press reports which were written to ignite fury against asylum-seekers, refugees and illegal immigrants. Coverage got so foul at one point that even Ann Leslie of the Daily Mail came out and said that she was mortified at the language that was being used by local papers in areas such as Dover.

Like jackals and buzzards, anti-refugee politicians and papers fight over and tear into the same dying gazelle, reinforcing the sense of power they thrive on. At a recent meeting organised by the One World Broadcasting Trust, we were shown a collection of such nauseating cuttings from the Mail, Telegraph, Sun and, worst of all, the Evening Standard, the paper for London, a city made and constantly renewed by immigrants and refugees.

And it will only get worse over the next few months with the election looming, the dispersal policies in chaos and new evidence that asylum-seekers are moving back into the capital, where they will suffer without any incomes but where they have support networks. As I write this, I can hear Michael Heseltine on Radio 4, growling like an ageing lion about "bogus" asylum-seekers and why it is right to keep them out. Having shown little moral courage in the past, and being more vulnerable to criticism than ever before, what will Jack Straw et al do except match the howls of these Tory beasts who are roaming wild at present?

They would be very misguided indeed to do so, firstly because they cannot go on encouraging people to be vile to asylum-seekers. Racial attacks against them are getting worse; the latest victim, 42-year-old Cumali Sinangili, a Turkish asylum-seeker, lies fighting for his life this week. He was set upon, apparently, by three white men, in an attack which even the police describe as "gut wrenching". We know that the European Union is concerned about human rights abuses in Turkey, and that this is the reason for keeping Turkey out of the EU. But the victims of those abuses are "bogus" once they are here. Explain to me the logic of that.

In school playgrounds now, "Paki" is a less insulting word than "refugee". An article in the Reader's Digest last November showed how anti-asylum-seeker hatred is the result of bizarre "facts" that many people now believe. In one survey quoted, the majority of respondents thought that asylum-seekers get £113 per week, when all they receive is £36.00 in vouchers, that paper confirmation of their sub-human status.

And yet, in spite - or maybe because - of these relentless attacks, last year should also be remembered for the fact that many safely middle-class people, as well as the rich, famous and powerful, decided that they were no longer prepared to sit by and watch politicians and the right-wing press ostracise weak and vulnerable "outsiders". Bill Morris was one of the most vocal, and it was in this paper that he first made his demands that the voucher system should be abolished. He was promised a review, but expectations are low that he will get what he wanted.

Last July some of us, mainly journalists and actors - luvvies so hated by robust politicians - got together to organise a vigil to remember the young, ambitious and hopeful Chinese men and women who were found suffocated to death in the back of a lorry. We also wanted the powerful to rethink their policies. In just over a week, we had hundreds of letters and many cheques. Interflora gave us beautiful lilies and a wreath. Those who responded were hospital consultants, company directors, head teachers, theatre directors, city slickers, local authority workers, ballet dancers, photographers, pensioners, and Jewish, Muslim and Christian organisations.

Supporters included Harriet Walter, Colin Firth, Maureen Lipman, Arlene Phillips, Adrian Mitchell, Ian McShane, the Redgraves, David Suchet, Phyllida Law, Ahdaf Soueif, Tim Piggot-Smith, Jo Brand, Jeremy Hardy, Sophie Thompson, Maria Aitken, Sam Mendes, Laurie Taylor, Richard Briers, the Goodness Gracious Me team, Will Self, Andrew O'Hagan, Linda Grant, Francis Wheen, Annette Crosbie, David Yip, Steve Bell, Frances de la Tour, Linda Smith, Lisa Jardine, Sheila Hancock, Maggie Steed, Juliet Stevenson, Kevin Whateley, Billy Bragg, Malcolm Tierney, Tom Paulin, Alan Rickman, Barry Morse, Jack Rosenthal, Saskia Reeves, Ian Wright - no sleight is intended at all, but there are many, many more such names. Ordinary people from Kent, Sussex, Norfolk - Middle England, if you will - joined in to reject the methods and messages of politicians on an issue that touches deep historical memories for many in this country.

And now Anita Roddick has launched a pilot campaign through her Body Shop network to give dignity back to asylum-seekers. Posters and post cards (to send to Tony Blair) have been placed in key shops and the idea is to go nationwide and to pull in all those people who know that it is contemptible to treat any human beings - even lying asylum-seekers - worse than we treat our dogs.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

The writer was appointed an MBE in the New Year Honours List for services to journalism

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