Immigrants should be welcomed, not despised

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The Independent Online

The latest report on Britain by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance makes depressing reading. It shows that "ethnic and religious minority groups continue to experience racism and discrimination in the UK". This is a betrayal of the ideals this country should stand for.

The latest report on Britain by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance makes depressing reading. It shows that "ethnic and religious minority groups continue to experience racism and discrimination in the UK". This is a betrayal of the ideals this country should stand for.

The report identifies asylum-seekers and refugees as one of the most vulnerable groups. Sadly, this comes as no great surprise. Asylum-seekers arrive desperate and penniless. They are instantly distinguished from wealthier immigrant groups by their poverty. And the state gives them no means to escape this miserable condition. They are not allowed to work while their claims are verified - even though many are highly qualified - and are forced to live on less than £45 a week. They are slurred in the populist press as scroungers and blamed for everything from housing shortages, to violent crime, to hospital over-crowding. Is it any wonder that ill-treatment of this oppressed group is on the rise?

This is a cause for great shame in our country and in particular for the Government, which has done so little to counter the vile myths peddled about asylum-seekers. Indeed, the Government has so often seemed intent on dancing to this very xenophobic tune. Its scheme for rural accommodation centres for asylum-seekers is a case in point. That plan has - thankfully - now been dropped, but the very fact that it was being considered tells us much about this Government's attitudes to those who flee to our shores for safety.

The scheme was intended to provide accommodation and social services for 3,000 asylum-seekers in former Ministry of Defence sites deep in the countryside. At first glance, this might appear reasonable, even humane. Asylum-seekers would have been allowed to come and go as they please. They would have had easy access to health services and classrooms for their children. But consider the actual needs of refugees. In most cases they travel directly to London or big cities because they have family or friends there. Does placing them in the middle of the countryside constitute a humane policy? There is certainly no indication that they are welcome there. Angry demonstrations - led by well-heeled locals - greeted plans to build these new centres.

Then there are the ethics of housing large numbers of asylum-seekers in accommodation centres in the first place. Ways should be sought to house them within the community, rather than in isolation. Such an approach merely feeds ignorant prejudices that they are somehow "undesirable".

Just how misguided this is has been shown by the economists of the Fraser of Allander Institute in Scotland, who have examined the impact of asylum-seekers on Glasgow. They demonstrate that asylum-seekers have generated a jobs windfall for the city. Some 5,000 asylum-seekers spend their benefits locally, creating nearly 500 jobs and £10m in wages. But the real benefit comes when they are permitted to work. Countless studies show that hard-working immigrants become an economic boon to a region. The wealth they inject far exceeds the cost of their benefit payments.

The same study also points out that asylum-seekers could help plug Scotland's population shortfall because they tend to be educated and young. This is undoubtedly true, and applies equally to many countries and regions across Europe. Immigrants - whether asylum-seekers or economic migrants - ought to be received as saviours rather than a menace. This is a truth that Europe as a whole, with its declining birth rates, will have to confront. Unfortunately, the evidence of just how badly we still treat most poor incomers shows how far we are from learning this vital lesson. It is our loss.

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