LETTER: Refugees cast as criminals

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From Fr Paul Walsh

Sir: The last sentence in Ann Widdecombe's letter (13 December) about proposed government legislation in relation to asylum-seekers in Britain struck me as extraordinarily significant: "Genuine refugees have nothing to fear from our proposals."

In the first place, "genuine refugees" are those who are found to be so by the Home Office. It is the same Home Office that decides which countries are "safe" to return asylum-seekers to. Recent events in Nigeria and Algeria seem to suggest that the Home Office's judgement is not always to be relied upon. The fact that only 1 per cent of applicants from Nigeria are successful in their bid to stay in this country - the largest source of asylum-seekers is the least successful in passing Home Office rules - would suggest that something more than fair treatment on the basis of each individual case is operating.

Further, it seems that the main driving force of the Government's argument in favour of stopping benefits to asylum-seekers is the presumption of fraud on the part of these people.

In my experience of dealing with asylum-seekers (mainly African) in the context of the French-speaking Catholic church in London, the ability of most of these people to give a satisfactory account of the legitimacy of their case on arriving in Britain is highly questionable. Apart altogether from the disorientation, fear and sense of loss attending the circumstances of their leaving their own country, they arrive in a strange place; have no idea what is being said to them (even those who speak French, do so as their second or third language); and have to cope with the double shock of a new culture and a most unexpectedly suspicious reception. If, on top of this, they are presumed to be trying to cheat their way into Britain, I can only see one probable conclusion.

I, and many members of our congregation, are appalled at the prospect of 12,000-13,000 people finding themselves without housing support and benefits on 8 January - a decision apparently taken on the presumption of mass fraud; we are particularly appalled at the prospect of being part of a society that can, with the passing of a vote, so undermine the lives of so many vulnerable people who have absolutely no say themselves in what is being proposed. I appeal to Ms Widdecombe and to the Government to come and meet some of these people, listen to their stories, and then decide if so many of them are cheating the British taxpayer.

Yours sincerely,

Paul Walsh

Priest

Notre Dame de France

London, WC2

13 December

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