Strangers, citizens and the siege mentality: A fortress Europe, closed to refugees, is an odious policy, argues Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

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The Independent Online
FOR ONCE it seems entirely appropriate to invoke the names of Kafka and Orwell - as many have done - to describe the situation of asylum seekers in this country. A total of 645 people who have not been convicted of any crime, many of whom hardly understand what is happening to them, have been incarcerated for up to a year in centres and even prisons around Britain. Judge Stephen Tumim, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, found desperation and self-mutilation among the detainees held in Pentonville Prison, where the death in 1991 of a Zairean, Omasase Lumumba, led to a verdict of unlawful killing.

The situation has got significantly worse since the Immigration and Asylum Appeals Act, which came into force in July last year. The Government claimed that it was humane because applications would be processed more quickly. In fact, we have ended up with a disgraceful series of violations of human rights overall and more people in detention than before. The proportion of failed applications jumped from 14 per cent in the first half of 1993 to 72 per cent in the second. Those granted 'exceptional leave to remain' fell from 76 to 22 per cent.

This is a reflection of how much attitudes towards those seeking asylum have changed. The same trend can be observed in other European countries. Refugees, particularly from the Third World, have been criminalised by European politicians and the popular media. Simultaneously, the white fortress Europe mentality is creating a state of siege with no scope for humanitarian concern.

If all refugees are rogues, why worry if some end up languishing in detention? This is a complete change, not only from the days of the early Eighties, when having a Czech or Chilean political exile among one's acquaintances was de rigueur, but also from that period after the Second World War when thousands of Poles, Italians and Jews were given sanctuary in this country.

The siege mentality makes no sense if you consider how little is being done by the powerful nations, especially given the massive uprooting of people taking place globally. These powerful nations take in 10 per cent of the world's refugees and rarely use the leverage they might - by means of trade and aid policies - in countries that abuse human rights. Moreover the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, whose business it should be to protect the interests of displaced people, often seems too eager to appease those in power.

The paranoia and indifference we show towards refugees impairs our ability to see what is in our own self-interest. Refugees are not terrorists demanding our compassion and resources, nor are they childlike, helpless creatures, ever grateful and obsequious. They have much to offer if we have the right entry and resettlement policies for them.

I should know. I came here in 1972 from Uganda, arriving just when there was an eruption of antagonism towards the displaced victims seeking refuge here. Twenty-two short years on, we have proved ourselves to be spectacularly successful in business, academia and public life. Just like the Jews in previous decades.

This argument is highlighted in a new report, Strangers and Citizens, compiled by the Institute for Public Policy Research. Two contributors, Chris Randall and Elspeth Guild, both solicitors, believe that many of those who arrive here have wide entrepreneurial and intellectual abilities, frequently sharpened during their battles to survive the most adverse circumstances. Randall and Guild rattle off examples of wasted talent: a Romanian physicist working as a cleaner; an Iraqi doctor who has unique professional expertise in treating victims of poison gas and who is coveted by three hospitals; a lawyer from Sarajevo who has been offered a place by a law firm because of her knowledge of East European languages and legal systems. All have been waiting three years for a Home Office decision on whether they can remain in this country. Until that comes, they can do nothing: they cannot work legally and cannot obtain funding to convert their qualifications. Aid agencies, schools and colleges and other organisations too, would all benefit enormously.

But the benefits go beyond the pragmatic. At a recent seminar, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Magonet, head of Leo Baeck college, spoke movingly about the short-term fears and long-term gains associated with admitting refugees, and also about the moral imperatives: '. . . allowing the 'gere' (stranger) to contribute to society is to offer them the chance to express their own self-worth and dignity . . . we are defined as a human society precisely by the way we treat the ones who don't belong to us . . .'

A country that (still) believes it is civilised needs to live up to that image, otherwise we may end up with what Karl Gunnar Myrdal famously described as the 'American dilemma' of living out a contradiction between what we are (mean) and what we believe we are (generous). In the words of Philip Rudge of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, a forum of non-governmental organisations on asylum policy: 'The ghost at the table is the tremendously important question of what kind of Europe we want. It is a battle of values . . . We feel impotent as we watch former Yugoslavia. That wonderful explosion of human rights declarations after the war has come to nothing today. So we seek simple solutions, be unpleasant to people who are weak, give up our important beliefs.'

What happens when a nation abandons all ideals and ceases to operate with humanity and compassion? Especially one whose self-image is, with some justification, bound up with the honourable role it played in destroying the forces of barbarism in the Second World War. What pride will our children feel when they look back to the present?

With active religion diminishing in importance, the promotion of humanitarian ideals would seem to offer an important substitute. But these ideals must live, not be cynically used in speeches to cover up odious policies. Patrick Nichols, a vice-chairman of the Tory Party, recently referred to the high number of asylum seekers arriving here in order to 'prove' that Britain is still a great country. As the pragmatist Dr Reller in Ibsen's Wild Duck says to his friend: 'Don't use that exotic word 'ideals'. We have that excellent native word 'lies'.'