Why is David Blunkett bullying and terrifying asylum-seekers?

I have been among refugees all my life, yet I have never met one of those lazy, scrounging refugees found in the gutter press

Johann Hari
Wednesday 03 December 2003 01:00 GMT

In medialand, last week's fuss about asylum-seekers is over. David Blunkett talked about taking asylum-seekers' children into care, but joked that he was no King Herod. Ho ho, the policy isn't as extreme as it sounds, he explained, so that's that. Except the horror isn't over for one group of people: Britain's refugee population.

The day the story was spun by David Blunkett's office, refugee organisations were inundated (Blunkett would say "swamped") by distressed callers. I know seven asylum-seekers, four from Iraq. They all called in a panic. Sadia, a Somali refugee who lives near me in Brick Lane, turned up at my flat clutching her two kids. She was desperate for advice from anybody who understood this new policy.

You might think: why the fuss? Wasn't it obviously a policy that would apply to a small minority of refugees, if any? But remember: these are people who have fled states where children are snatched from their parents in the night, and newspapers are organs of the government. When they see a newspaper headline, they think it has the status of an official announcement. Many do not speak very good English, and could not follow Blunkett's clauses and small print. "I thought I had come to a free country," Sadia said. "I thought things like this didn't happen here."

Blunkett has explained that if a family's asylum application has been declined and the family refuses a paid flight to return to their country of origin, then the state will stop all benefits. Because this will obviously make the family destitute, the children will be taken into care rather than be left homeless. Even if you accept the morality of that policy - and I certainly don't - he must have known that the proposals would be lauded by the vicious-right press and easily misunderstood by frightened asylum-seekers.

The abuse of refugees by the Government - giving them a pittance to live on, and periodically terrifying them - has now become so extreme that it risks making a mockery of its arguments about Iraq. How can we be so appalled by tyranny that we are prepared to launch a just war to overthrow it, but not sympathetic enough to treat its victims decently when they arrive on our own doorstep?

The Home Secretary exposes the dishonesty and prejudice with which he seeks to conduct this debate by describing defenders of refugees as "far left", and equivalent to the far right. Are the BNP and the Refugee Council really equally contemptible, Mr Blunkett? Or is this populist bluster of the most dishonest kind?

Yet to most British people, this seems reasonable, because they are constantly being told by their newspapers and their politicians that we are besieged by lazy, dishonest aliens. Is there a more loathsome phenomenon than newspapers owned by right-wing tax-dodging billionaires trying to convince ordinary British people that the greatest problem confronting us comes from the wretched and helpless?

I have been among refugees all my life. My parents used to rent out rooms to Iranian dissidents, and I live in one of the most popular areas for London's refugees. Yet I have never met one of these lazy, scrounging refugees popularised in the gutter press. Not one. The really depressing thing is that I have no doubt Tony Blair - and probably David Blunkett - know that these stereotypes are ugly urban myths too.

Their stance is determined not by malice but by their analysis of European politics. It goes like this: centre-left governments elected in the same wave as New Labour all across Europe have toppled because they did not "get a grip" on anxieties about asylum. Only by changing this pattern and being harsh will refugees be neutralised as an issue for the Tories and the BNP. Either we're tough or they will be tougher.

This is a flawed analysis. Far from countering the experience of the French Socialists or the Italian left, we are repeating it. The centre-left in both those countries made extremely harsh noises about asylum. This did not neutralise the issue; it gave it greater force than ever before. If every respectable politician is seen to agree that asylum is a huge problem - one of the biggest confronting the country, rather than a minor issue using up just 0.5 per cent of public funds - the issue does not dissolve in the public's mind; it expands. The French left spent two decades talking tough - and the fascist right grew and grew until it eclipsed them entirely at the last presidential elections. New Labour has similarly been appeasing the anti-asylum right for 10 years now, and, as with all appeasement, it has only encouraged the hard right: look at the BNP's huge growth in the North.

It is time to abandon the strategy which reached its grotesque apotheosis last week with Blunkett positioning himself to the right of Michael Howard. When you threaten to take asylum-seekers' children into care, you aren't fending off the right - you have become the right.

The first step in a new strategy must be to loudly state a simple truth: the fourth largest economy in the world has nothing to fear from 100,000 desperately poor people eager for stability and work. Indeed, the Government should positively sell the benefits of refugees. It is no coincidence that the richest country in the world has as its national symbol a statue which declares, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free." Refugees are not a cancer or a burden. They are a privilege, and can only enrich our society. Blunkett has wisely made positive noises about immigration recently, and his proposals for a "green card" system are excellent. Yet he never mentions welcoming immigrants without referring to the supposed problems of asylum, thus undermining any good he might do.

The second step is to remind the public that even the "worst" asylum-seekers are fleeing real poverty. Britain cannot offer refuge to every poor person who turns up - but even a "failed" or "bogus" asylum-seeker deserves our compassion.

Only then can we carry out the third and final step with a clear conscience. This is to deport those whose asylum applications have failed after a proper legal process (something Blunkett is also trying to whittle away). Even the old Tory idea of a Deportations Agency would be a better way of achieving this end than threatening refugee children. Deportation will always be horrible, but it is necessary in the very last resort because open borders (attractive though they are in most respects) are not compatible with an advanced welfare state. All collective systems like the NHS are based on the idea of collective contributions; that falls apart in an entirely fluid society without a proper sense of belonging and citizenship.

Yet we must err on the side of generosity when assessing asylum claims: the risk of sending somebody back to a tyranny is too terrible to contemplate. We must treat all applicants decently, rather than offering them the pittance they are currently given, and use deportation only as a last resort. Blunkett's decision to adopt an obscene tactic to get the rejected to leave has now crossed a basic moral boundary. Surely in this past week the Labour strategy of kow-towing to asylum-haters has, after a decade of abuse, finally hit rock-bottom.


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