Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: My time in a resettlement centre

'There were some colonial bwanas or memsahibs who ran the camps, but others were kind and remain friends to this day'
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Twice in the past week I found myself agreeing in large part with policy ideas flagged up by the Home Secretary. This had never, ever happened before. It felt quite unnatural, especially as I expected to battle even more furiously against David Blunkett than I did against Jack Straw's peremptory and uncivilised responses to asylum-seekers and economic migrants. Suddenly I have a little more faith. I hope I am not being naive or too trusting of a government so often incomparably cynical and manipulative.

But for now I am excited by Blunkett's proposed integration policies for in-comers – providing language lessons and skills training – and even more so by the introduction of citizenship education for those who apply for naturalisation, an idea I suggested in True Colours, which I wrote for the Institute for Public Policy Research in 1999. I support, too, some aspects of the proposed overhaul of the asylum system. Not, however the move to make asylum decisions more quickly and to speed up deportations.

This is dangerous and negates the spirit of the 1951 Geneva Convention. Speed cannot be the prime consideration if we are serious about fairness and justice. People will be deported without a chance to make a proper claim and we will never know whether we sent them to their deaths or worse, because our media does not follow the lives of deportees. I am even more concerned about this having just read a lucid, dispassionate book, Seeking Asylum in the UK, by Professor Colin Harvey of the University of Leeds.

But I welcome the other radical changes, which I hope may bury NAAS, the National Asylum Support Service, the unit within the Home Office that has failed so conspicuously to operate the dispersal and voucher systems, both despicable ideas in the first place. The idea of a US-style "green-card" system to enable at least some people to come into the country as legal economic migrants is revolutionary. Those huddled masses who risk all to get in may be allowed to apply to work in areas where there is a labour shortage, not only in IT, but in construction and tourism. We need them; they need us. This simple fact has eluded previous Home Secretaries, who have been paralysed by a phobia of economic migrants.

I would go further and allow all those applying for asylum to work while their cases are heard. The "burden" on the taxpayer would be reduced; the individuals would get their dignity back, and they could earn some money to take if and when deported. This could only work properly if we had reception centres (not detention centres as proposed by the Tories) where people could be assisted and taught English, something most would need. Until 1988 central government funded English for adult immigrants, and I was once such a teacher in factories and hospitals.

Such centres at present are vehemently rejected by campaign groups and those on the left. But as a Ugandan Asian I know that, for all that was wrong with them, reception camps organised for the thousands expelled suddenly by Idi Amin in 1972 were an essential interim stage. Next year it will be exactly 30 years since this exodus, and most people still feel grateful for the way the British government received them.

After some humiliating procrastination, Ted Heath took in Ugandan Asians who had British passports, and decided on a series of measures to help us settle here. We were never refugees, but our passports had been turned into useless documents when, in 1968, the Labour government had removed our right to free entry to this country. Even the right-wing Auberon Waugh thought this was "the most immoral piece of legislation ever".

Resettlement camps, language lessons and other essential teaching were provided for us by the state. People could choose not to go to the camps, but most decided to take up the offer. Yes, there were some colonial-type bwanas and memsahibs who ran or worked in the camps, and they were loathed. But others were kind and warm, and remain close friends with their former charges to this day.

We arrived at the height of Powellism, when racism was much more raw and brutal than it is today. If the first months after arrival had been spent on hard housing estates (something that regularly happens to asylum seekers today), I don't know how people would have survived. Being together for some months helped the refugees to feel less isolated, giving them the time and space they needed to accept the terrible loss of their homeland and to learn about Britain.

I used to be asked to visit a camp near Oxford and help people with their English and form-filling. The women would all be singing and cooking together, while the men plotted into the night about what they would do next. I have never forgotten Mithi, a round, peachy woman, weeping endlessly because her husband could not come here as he had a Ugandan passport. She thought her luck would change (her mood certainly did) if she organised a feast for seven pre-pubescent girls, a ritual commonly carried out by families in her community when times were bad. So we all helped her by collecting money and buying special foods and gifts of sugared almonds for the girls. Camp life made that kind of giving between traumatised strangers possible. All the differences between faith groups and classes disappeared, and we became a more united and effective group.

Hundreds of indigenous Britons, including Professor Michael Dummett and his wife Ann (who have been such inspiring campaigners on behalf of immigrants and refugees) and the Bottomleys, got to know Ugandan Asians by helping them in various ways. East-African Asians who had settled in previous years and made good would turn up at camps offering help, jobs, introductions to bank managers. These activities set the foundation for the enormous success many Ugandan Asians have made of their lives.

Ted Heath did attempt some post-camp dispersal measures, forcing people to move to villages in Wales or Scotland; this part of his strategy failed completely. In Origins, a collection of stories by immigrants to Bristol (published by Kuumba Project for the City Council), Khursheed Tajdin, an expelled Ugandan Asian, describes how a nurse at their camp in Minehead helped the family get treatment for their seriously ill son and to successfully fight against dispersal to Scotland. Leicester, Ealing and Alperton in west London already had East-African Asians setting up corner shops. Even though councils from these localities put in full-page newspaper adverts asking us to go elsewhere, we ignored them and brought these areas to life. I have no doubt that without those months in camps, we would not have become so quickly one of the most successful migrant groups in the history of this country.

What do asylum-seekers have today that is better than reception centres? They are forced into flats unfit for habitation or B&Bs run by people who care only about profit. They are despised by indigenous Britons and cannot take their children to school because they are abused by other tenants.

We are all horrified by the events at Holy Cross school in Northern Ireland, but we ignore similar scenes here day in, day out, which leave asylum-seekers' children trapped inside their fragile homes. If Mr Blunkett is consideringreception centres to improve the lot of asylum-seekers and economic migrants, we must support him all the way. If, however, his proposal is meant to be punitive, a screen for yet another covert detention centre, this will be utterly contemptible – and I will be the first to say so.