A radical solution to our shameful record on asylum-seekers

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It does not matter whether you are a bleeding-heart liberal, as the Home Secretary recently characterised anyone who takes human rights seriously, or a flinty authoritarian. It was never a good idea to disperse large numbers of asylum-seekers either to unlettable council houses in troubled urban areas or to private accommodation in small towns.

It does not matter whether you are a bleeding-heart liberal, as the Home Secretary recently characterised anyone who takes human rights seriously, or a flinty authoritarian. It was never a good idea to disperse large numbers of asylum-seekers either to unlettable council houses in troubled urban areas or to private accommodation in small towns.

The scale of racially motivated violence suffered by asylum-seekers, however, is greater than anyone could have guessed. The Home Office has recorded 2,000 racial attacks since the dispersal programme began two years ago. For those of us tempted to extol the core virtues of the British as tolerance and fair-mindedness, with occasional excesses of the opposite when cynical, rabble-rousing politicians provide a lead, this is a grim corrective.

Of course, much of the discourse of the leaders of both main parties has made matters worse, serving to link asylum-seekers with words such as "swamped" and "bogus". But even if David Blunkett and Iain Duncan Smith had restricted themselves to public statements of Charles Kennedyesque compassion, the result of the dispersal policy was entirely predictable, even if the scale of the violence was not.

You can take the liberal view that ill-educated people in deprived areas are likely to express their frustrations in hostility towards foreigners more unfortunate than themselves. Or you can take the harsher view that male humans are aggressive animals given to violence against outsiders within their midst. Either way, the outcome was not in doubt.

The Government has already modified the programme after the fatal stabbing of an asylum-seeker on a Glasgow estate. Today, we report that dispersals to Sunderland have been suspended because of the level of violence against asylum-seekers there. But the basic policy has not been changed, and nor will it be for several years, while the new network of accommodation and removal centres is set up.

The Home Secretary cannot go forwards, or back – he cannot return to the old system which simply left asylum-seekers where they ended up, mostly in London and the Channel ports. That strained the resources – and the tolerance – of a few localities.

The difficulty comes from the pressure of numbers – not that Britain cannot absorb and benefit from more immigration – but that the increase in claims in recent years has overwhelmed the bureaucracy responsible for receiving and assessing them.

The key to an acceptable asylum system remains a speeding up of the time taken to deal with applications, on which the Home Office has made some progress but still trails far behind its targets. The numbers claiming to seek refuge continue to rise because of the growing efficiency of the people-smuggling business, the continuing pull of the labour market and the closing off of legitimate immigration.

Mr Blunkett should consider the radical option of declaring an amnesty. He should give all asylum-seekers currently here the right to remain, and start again. That would provide this country with much-needed workers, many of whom are skilled, entrepreneurial or willing to take low-paid jobs shunned by locals; it would get rid of the backlog at a stroke; and it would allow a well-resourced and fair system of receiving and assessing future claims to start with a clean slate.

That might go some way to restoring this country's damaged reputation as welcoming and fair-minded towards new arrivals.

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