Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Mrs Thatcher's lesson in compassion

'I choke to write this, but the best examples of positive asylum policies are found not in Labour but in Mr Heath and Mrs Thatcher'
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The Independent Online

M C – The name appears Kurdish – sends this e-mail: "I have no chance of warding off the emotional tauntings and assaults of some peer groups of white guys. How should I act in this situation and continue preserving my self-esteem and not start behaving like them?"

Every week I get a number of such desperate e-mails from asylum seekers who obviously use their meagre allowances in internet cafes in order to express their grief and rage at the way they are forced to live. (Home Office officials will scurry off to advise ministers that this is a wasteful use of taxpayers' money. The voucher system was, after all, meant to dehumanise these people so that all they can do is eat and drink – just enough – urinate and defecate, sleep and wish they had never dared to come here, seeking generosity from a nominally Christian country.)

Many of those contacting me are men, young men who feel emasculated by the fear and loathing that they endure on the streets and in the allocated places they are forced to inhabit as a result of punitive dispersal policies. One such young man, 22-year-old Firstat Yildez, was murdered last week in what is thought to have been an unprovoked racist attack in Sighthill, Glasgow, a city that has received 4,000 asylum seekers since March this year.

This murder adds one more case to an ever increasing number of violent attacks in some localities. Mr Yildez was not Stephen Lawrence, a young, ambitious son from a settled, middle-class black family. Politicians will not rush across and have their pictures taken with grieving relatives or friends. They will not attend the funeral (even in Germany, the EU country with the most nefarious asylum regulations, when there are racist murders of asylum seekers many members of parliament attend the funeral. Not here. Never here) and Ann Widdecombe, David Blunkett et al will not be rushing around the studios standing up for the basic right to life of asylum seekers.

He was not one of us. He was just another one of those who are invading our shores as we sleep, bringing with them nothing but rabid lies and pestilent needs which plague us and destroy this fruitful land. So, sad as it is that a mother will break and want to die to hear the news of her son, and although none of us decent folk of Great Britain would ever condone murder, we must remember that most of these people are "bogus" scroungers.

On Radio 4's World at One, a bullish Jeff Rooker, a minister in the Home Office, was keen to let us know that most asylum seekers fail to make their case and that those awaiting decisions get less money than British nationals. This was his response to a question about whether politicians should be doing more to change the hostile attitude of the public towards refugees. He is probably proud too that, as the Independent on Sunday revealed, more than 1,000 asylum seekers are currently in prison without having been charged or convicted of any crime and that many of them are picked on for special treatment by inmates and officers.

If these were nice dogs or sheep or lambs or even foxes, public sympathy could easily make a difference. If they knew that these animals were being brought across in appalling conditions, then forced to survive on as little as possible and kicked around and killed by drunken thugs on our streets, the uproar would be heard in Calais. And if there were cute little babies among them, the good people of this island would never let it happen.

Asylum children however – there are, for example, more than 1,200 orphans currently in Kent – are more likely to arouse fear than sympathy among millions of British citizens. Politicians and their policies and some sections of the media have ensured this. Richard Littlejohn and Gary Bushell have even written sick "novels" about bastard asylum seekers and then had them serialised in the tabloids to incite and excite people who never read books.

It is that coupling between the press and politics which makes public opinion and if you want to see how it can work to create a positive outcome, even in the fraught area of immigration and asylum, astonishingly, the best examples are found not in Labour governments (which are always dishonourable and cowardly when it comes to this issue) but in two Tory Prime Ministers, Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher. I choke as I write this. Ted Heath, no great egalitarian and very Tory, nevertheless took on Enoch Powell when he let in Ugandan Asians who had been expelled by Idi Amin. He got his ministers to talk up the skills and contributions of the exiles. He said Uganda was losing a great asset and Britain was gaining enormous entrepreneurial capital. Many newspapers took their cue from him and promoted this line. This meant that when 20,000 British passport-holders arrived here, large numbers of Britons felt moved by our plight enough to offer us genuine sympathy and material help. I went into the camps carrying dozens of winter coats and baby clothes which daily arrived or were brought over by people of all classes. There was brutal racism around too and life was hard, but the goodwill helped immeasurably. Although there are still many Britons who support asylum seekers today, their numbers are much diminished.

An even better example of a committed positive policy was evident when Margaret Thatcher decided to take in Vietnamese refugees in the early 1980s. Her hatred for communism was much greater obviously than her concern that Britain was being "swamped" by alien cultures (this is what she said in 1978 in a television interview) and typically, when she decided on this gesture, she went for it with all the conviction which made her such a formidable politician. She presented the refugees to this country as people who loved freedom and enterprise. Resettlement was organised and funded. Thatcher's favourite newspaper editors were co-opted to churn out sentimental stories of escape and suffering.

This week on Channel 4, Secret History shows how the Daily Mail under David English had already embarked on this propaganda mission by orchestrating an airlift of 99 Vietnamese orphan babies in 1975. This meant that on the whole, Vietnamese refugees – although they too faced hostility and official hypocrisy – managed to enter the country without that hail of hatred we now see everywhere.

Learn from this, Mr Blair. You know better than any previous prime minister how to manipulate the media, but you choose not to do so on this issue. This death of a young man seeking a better life should force you to look again at your policies. Let asylum seekers work until you deport them if you must. Let them take back their dignity and some money with them. Inform your public that world unrest and inequality forces people out, to lie and cheat and try to get a living for themselves and their children. Tell them that as an overcrowded island we cannot take all the people who need help but that we will be as fair as possible. Develop a proper integration policy – teaching language, citizenship and work skills – and track the people who settle. Publicise the way the most wretched of the earth can flourish given humane surroundings. Why, for example, have you not made public just what this country has gained since giving refuge to South African exiles for many decades?

If you don't do this, more asylum seekers will die under your leadership; asylum children will be beaten up in playgrounds and that moral authority you radiate will lose all credibility.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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