Britain - A reactionary policy against political asylum

Mar 2000

Since Labour came back to power, it has not only continued the anti-working class policies of its predecessors, but also their systematic wooing of the most reactionary sections of the electorate on a whole range of issues. From the criminalisation of the homeless, the proposal of curfews for school-age truants, fast track sentencing of youth for petty crimes, the building of more prisons, to the removal of certain rights like trial by jury - the list of such examples is already very long.

Among these issues, the repressive policies against immigrants in general and asylum seekers in particular which gained particular prominence - highlighted most recently by the Afghan jet hijack. When this Boeing 727, very much the worse for wear, landed at London's Stanstead Airport on the 7th of February, it became clear almost immediately that the hijackers were seeking political asylum. And from that moment onwards, the Home Secretary Jack Straw, made absolutely sure that there would be no doubt as to his "tough stance" against refugees.

A long siege

Having taken over this plane during an internal flight in Afghanistan, the hijackers tried a number of different destinations before landing in London. It is evident therefore, that the eventual arrival of this jet in London, rather than anywhere else, was hardly the result of a "masterplan" by the hijackers. The responsible Foreign Office minister, John Battle agreed to allow it to land on the grounds that it was running out of fuel, and the plane was immediately surrounded by police snipers. But contact with the hijackers soon established that they only wanted one thing - political asylum.

However, for the first 24 hours, no official information was given about this and the plane remained on the runway with all 146 passengers (17 of them children) plus hijackers on board, surrounded by the police, for four whole days.

This was the longest hijacking siege in British history. The reason given was that the hijackers refused to come out without assurances on their safety and fair treatment. But it seems that the huge profile the hijack received in the media, focusing on the issue of Britain being a "soft touch" for asylum seekers, threw the government into a panic and so they played for time before deciding what to do - all the more so as, even before the end of the siege, the majority of the passengers, having found themselves in London by chance, decided to take the opportunity of claiming political asylum as well.

The press, camped outside the perimeter fence at Stanstead from day one, lost no time at all in launching an avalanche of xenophobic hysteria against asylum-seekers. According to the tabloid "Sun", Britain was now the "dustbin of the world" and "a soft touch for every scrounger on the planet". The fact that the passengers were taken first to a "luxury" hotel - because it was in the airport's grounds and could be completely isolated - was too much for the "Mirror": "Hi, Jack!", said its front page, "Where's the four-star hotel? Send them home." The Daily Mail was prepared to wager that most, if not all, the "victims" of the hijack would still be enjoying (!) a life on benefits in this country in five years. Even the non-tabloid press (the Sunday Times in this case) made the claim that "Britain has long been an attractive destination for asylum seekers because of its generous welfare system and backlog of 100,000 asylum applications, which means that even unfounded claims can take years to process". As if the press does not know that welfare benefits for asylum seekers are conditional and come with stringent conditions attached. And just who would find an income of £45.30 a week "generous", when it is barely enough to live on here? Who would risk his own life and the lives of others just to obtain this pittance?

While the press was whipping up such hysteria against the asylum seekers, the government was busy adapting to it, and de facto, encouraging it. Afraid to go against the stream in even the slightest way, Jack Straw, hid behind the "fact" of the act of hijacking and said: "I'm determined that nobody should consider there can be any benefit from hijacking ... I would wish to see removed from this country all those on the plane as soon as practicable." He promised personally to decide on every asylum application made by the Afghans.

Of course, even Straw could not deny that Afghans have every reason to flee their country. His own ministry's assessment of the Taleban regime states the following: "Executions and other cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments were believed to be widespread, but were not always reported to the authorities. Of those announced, eight people were flogged, including a woman accused of adultery who was given 100 lashes at the Kabul Sports Stadium in February 1998 in front of 30,000 spectators. There were at least 14 reports of public amputations carried out by doctors from the ministry of public health usually in football stadiums in front of thousands of spectators, some of whom were forced to attend. At least 10 public executions were also reported." Indeed, in 1998, out of the 1,000 requests for asylum from Afghanistan processed by the Home Office, only 65 were refused.

It would have been difficult, therefore, for Straw to justify sending the Afghans back home immediately. Nevertheless a jet was put on the ready to take back the hapless passengers. They all had blood samples taken in order to check they were not related to the hijackers, and they were all put in detention. Pressure was exerted on them by immigration officials to return to Afghanistan, so that the initial figure of only 17 who were prepared to fly back home increased finally to 73. This left 44 claiming asylum for themselves and 33 "dependents" - 77 in all. Six others are relatives of the 14 charged with hijacking the plane and their claims have not been accepted, pending the outcome of the trial of the hijackers.

Straw, looking for a way out of facing the responsibility he has - that of granting asylum to all those who asked for it, talked of sending them to a "safe" third country - like Pakistan! Yes, one of the few countries in the world which recognises the Taleban regime and allows their forces to come into refugee camps to check on Afghans who have fled their repression! And where it is documented that Afghan refugees have been assassinated by Taleban squads. Indeed the Afghan ambassador to London was quite happy to assure the British public when interviewed by the media that the hijackers, if returned to Afghanistan, would be executed. As for those who initially applied for asylum and then changed their minds, they will probably face persecution, in one form or another after their return.

At the time of writing, of the 77 who are claiming asylum, Straw, true to his promise of dealing personally and speedily with these claims, has already ruled that 27 have no legitimate claim! Only 13 (8 adults and 5 children) have been given leave to remain in the UK. That said, he has not served removal notices on those who have been refused refugee status. Of course they have the right of appeal, which would then suspend a removal order.

As to Straw, his real concern remains that his failure to return people to the repression of Afghanistan might be perceived as "weakness". So, having hidden first behind the means by which the refugees arrived - hijacking - in order to be "hard", he now goes on the offensive against what he describes as "flaws" in the International Convention of Human Rights concerning refugees, which, he says, forces him to be "softer" than he wishes.

It seems that for Blair and Straw, the only humanitarian acts that they are prepared to defend publicly are towards butchers like Pinochet, who was sent home to Chile on the same day that Straw announced his decision concerning the Afghans' request for asylum. Or indeed the "humanitarian" bombs that they dropped on Kosovo.

The situation of refugees in Britain

"Why they Choose Britain" was the title of a Sunday Times article just after the hijacking. It explained why Britain was "known" to be a "soft touch" for asylum seekers. Britain was apparently "more tolerant" than France and Germany (when Germany has taken in the most asylum-seekers of any European country including 350,000 from Eastern Europe). It also explained why refugee applications had increased so much: "generous" welfare benefits! The article claimed that these benefits would give a couple with two children £100 more in Britain than in Germany. How they work this out, of course, they do not say. But in fact only "destitute" asylum seekers here are given £45.30/week - that is 90% of Income Support - and only if they apply on arrival at the port of entry. If they apply for asylum after getting into the country they can be deprived of benefit altogether or given it at a much lower rate. Some local authorities already pay part of the benefit in the form of vouchers and food parcels leaving the refugee with hardly any cash. And, of course, refugees are not allowed to work in order to supplement this pittance until their application has been approved.

So is the situation of asylum seekers really so much worse in the rest of Europe? In Berlin (conditions vary according to region) all refugees receive a cash payment of £41.10 and they are given accommodation on top, as in Britain. In Sweden, asylum seekers are allowed to work after four months living in the country. Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway, Finland and Belgium all give higher weekly cash payments, varying from £45.77 to £99. Even in "poor" Ireland, asylum seekers are given £63.51 per week and a separate rent allowance! Those countries without a national health service supply refugees with medical assistance as well. In other words, the argument that refugees choose to come to Britain because of the attraction of "generous" benefits is absurd. Indeed the vast majority of asylum seekers - with the exception of those from Eastern Europe who are trying desperately to gain admittance anywhere they possibly can - actually come to Britain because of the past colonial status of their countries. They come from Sri Lanka, Somalia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, etc., seeing Britain as the obvious country to turn to, if only for reasons of language.

The "flood" of asylum seekers denounced by the media is pure nonsense. In fact, the number of applicants for refugee status in a year represents 0.01% of the British population and, as it happens, is significantly less than the number of British citizens who go to work abroad each year. But in addition, the number of those who are actually granted refugee status is very few. In the ten years from 1988 to 1998 a grand total of only 58,350 asylum seekers including their children and dependents were given the right to remain in the UK. In 1997, only 24% of asylum seekers were given leave to remain. In 1998, 33%. But, judging from interim figures. it seems that the proportion has been cut down significantly since. In fact, since coming to power, Labour has deported over 93,000 people, with a 9% increase in the first nine months of 1999 over 1998.

This is the penalty that tens of thousands of asylum seekers have had to pay so that Labour can play up to the xenophobic prejudices of the a section of the electorate.

But it is not just asylum seekers who are footing the bill. The fact that a Labour government chooses to make such reactionary prejudices respectable, can only bear upon the general political atmosphere, particularly the among the ranks of the working class. It can only have a demoralising and isolating effect on those workers who have been resisting day in and day out the reactionary rejudices around them.

From detention without trial...

Contrary to the myths circulated by the press, asylum seekers face anything but a warm welcome when they arrive. If they declare themselves as seeking political refuge at their port of entry, they are immediately pulled into an interview with an immigration officer. This is hardly friendly, since the assumption is that they are not "genuine". They are finger-printed routinely, so as to prevent them making multiple applications. If it is considered that they may abscond - purely on the basis of the opinion of the immigration officer who interviews them - they can be detained in one of the many detention centres dotted around the country. If these are full, they are interned in a prison.

Just how many asylum seekers are detained in this way is not possible to ascertain precisely, because the Home Office does not publicise these figures. At present, MPs estimate that around one percent of all those with outstanding claims, are detained. But since the backlog of unprocessed asylum claims is around 104,000, this means that as many as 10,000 refugees may have been incarcerated for varying periods.

If this estimate is true, it is a lot more than were detained just before Labour was elected in May 1997. In January that year, the plight of imprisoned refugees was highlighted by Amnesty International. They estimated that there were 800 detained refugees - 300 of them held in criminal prisons, despite the fact that their only "offence" was to claim political asylum. Around 2,000 were estimated to be detained per year and a growing number were being held for 12 months or longer. At the end of January 1997, 17 asylum seekers, from Nigeria, Somalia, Algeria and Romania went on hunger strike in Rochester Prison, refusing food for three weeks. They were protesting because they had been given no access to any court or similar review body while their applications awaited processing. In the end those who refused to give up their hunger strike were force-fed.

So what has changed since Labour got into government? The facts speak for themselves. In February this year, two Indian asylum seekers staged a two-hour rooftop protest at Campsfield immigration centre near Oxford, which is run by Group 4 Security and where currently 190 refugees are held. One of the protestors had been there for 15 months, the other for 11 months. In September 1999, campaigners supporting detainees at Campsfield said that 141 asylum seekers had been in detention for 6-12 months and 47 more for over a year. But the total number detained for lesser periods can only be guessed at.

Moreover Labour has now a number of projects to increase significantly its detention facilities for refugees. Among these projects: the notorious Harmondsworth Centre near Heathrow Airport, which is due to be replaced by a new, larger centre near Feltham; a new "reception centre", which is to be established in the Oakington army camp, in Cambridgeshire, with a capacity of 400 detainees; HMP Aldington, near Folkestone in Kent, which is to be converted into another detention centre; and a bid by Securicor to operate two "floatels", that is, floating prison ships, in Liverpool harbour designated specifically for asylum seekers. internal exile

In February 1998, the Labour government removed the restriction on local authorities which prevented them from using their own stock of housing for asylum seekers. This restriction dated to the 1996 Tory Act which had brought in the most draconian legislation so far against immigrants and asylum seekers. Of course if they had not revoked it, there would have been absolutely nowhere for asylum-seeking families to go, given the growing numbers held up from getting on with their lives by the enormous backlog in application processing.

But even the relaxation of restrictions on local authorities has not solved the problem of housing homeless refugees - particularly in London and Kent. As a result, on the 23 November 1998, Jack Straw announced that new arrangements would be put into place. Asylum seekers were to be dispersed throughout the country - in order to reduce pressure on Dover and London. The Local Government Association was offered an additional £30m grant to put a scheme into place and indeed such a scheme has been operating for over a year now. But what are its consequences?

In practice what has happened is that wealthy councils such as Westminster and Slough have exported bus loads of refugees to northern deprived areas such as Newcastle and Hull. However this February, the Home Office was obliged to call a halt to this because the whole operation was getting out of hand and bus loads of refugees were arriving without the councils being warned first.

At the same time, just to add to the flames of local xenophobia, the Conservative-controlled Kent County Council and Hillingdon in Outer London announced that residents would face council tax increases to pay for the cost of supporting asylum seekers awaiting decisions. Kent complained that the Department of Health had failed to reimburse them for the full costs of looking after unaccompanied refugee children and threatened to add £3 extra to household council tax bills.

Some refugees have ended up in small towns or even villages, where there is no public transport and where there are no services for them either. They find themselves at a complete loss. They stick out like a sore thumb, the locals are suspicious of them, they have nothing to do all day as they cannot work and they have no money to spend on taxis. They have little alternative but to spend their time hanging around - usually near the one public telephone which allows them to keep in touch with the outside world. In one such village they were banned from the pub and found themselves accused of every petty crime which took place after their arrival.

In fact it is the design of this government's policy itself which promotes the whipping up of anger against refugees. The restrictions imposed on them, the lack of resources made available to them, the fact they are prevented from working, and of course the general housing shortage.

Indeed, whenever refugees are temporarily housed in an empty council flat in a working class area, the council housing shortage has led local residents to question their presence on the estate, thereby providing the far-right with an opportunity to raise its ugly face. Last year the National Front leafleted local estates in Barking, in East London, with a sheet titled "Whose (sic) paying for this asylum?". It asked if residents were "sick and tired" of a whole list of things regarding asylum seekers, including getting "priority housing", facing cuts while cash was found to cater for the needs of people who "haven't paid a penny into the economy", seeing old age pensioners struggle to buy enough food "while refugees stroll around in brand new leather jackets and rabbit away on mobile phones". They even claimed that asylum seekers "whether bogus or not were greeted with a lump sum of £1,600 on arrival in Britain"! Unfortunately, in a deprived area such as this, some of the locals could prove susceptible to such nonsense.

Slow, unfair, but certainly firmer

Labour's new Immigration and Asylum Bill, which is due to become law in April this year, was titled "Fairer, Faster and firmer: a Modern Approach to Immigration and Asylum", in its proposal stage. It is the third major reform in immigration law in six years.

Probably its worst feature is its hypocrisy. It has a long preamble on the enormous contribution made to Britain by those who have immigrated here, the bill being proposed on the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the SS Windrush at Tilbury Docks in 1948. This ship brought some of the first "invited" immigrants from the Caribbean who came here to provide cheap labour. It then congratulates Britain for being a multi-cultural and multiracial society today...

But the new Act has really taken its inspiration, not from the British immigrant community, but from the most draconian piece of legislation on immigration and asylum yet passed - the 1996 (Tory) Act! It was this Act which introduced the "White List" of countries where there was, according to the Tories' definition, "no serious risk of persecution" and therefore anyone coming from these countries had no right to asylum. Initially the designated countries were Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ghana, India, Pakistan, Poland and Romania - but later the list was expanded to include countries where it was felt the risk had "receded", like Nigeria and Sierra Leone. The White List was abolished by Labour, but instead they use very similar criteria to judge claims on "a case by case basis". And since Blair and Cook restored their "own" man, Kabba to the presidency of Sierra Leone, this country, for instance, is still considered "safe", despite all evidence to the contrary.

Labour's "admiration" for the Tories' objectionable piece of legislation goes much, much further however. Just as the Tory Home secretary tried to do in 1996, Straw intends to remove the right to welfare benefits from all asylum seekers. However he has come up with a way to avoid the same High Court decision - on human rights grounds - which forced Michael Howard to amend the 1996 act substantially. Instead, Labour is to create a separate system which is to administer refugee support centrally, the so-called National Asylum Support Service (NASS). Their premise however is that provision should be "offered on a last resort basis to those who have no other means including support from relatives or friends to whom they can turn." In other words, they will provide support only to those refugees who can prove that they are destitute.

The NASS will be responsible for providing 3 days emergency accommodation for anyone found entering illegally and without means of support as well as those claiming asylum on entry in similar circumstances. It is after this that the "dispersal scheme", already being used by some authorities, will kick in. Refugees will be allocated and sent, without any choice in the matter, to more permanent accommodation in one of 10 regions nationally. The new agency will formally "contract out" the provision of accommodation to the same local authorities, housing associations and private landlords who already provide it in fact. Refugees will be entitled to 70% of the current weekly income support paid to British citizens - about £36, but only £10 of this will be in cash, the rest being in vouchers. As, according to an official statement made in January, "cash is a strong factor in encouraging economic migrants and that restoration of benefits would lead to a significantly higher number of asylum seekers..."

Under the pretext of protecting asylum seekers from "unscrupulous" legal advisors the Act actually removes the right of asylum seekers to have a legal representative with them at their first interview on the grounds that since it is only a fact-finding exercise, this is unnecessary. However it is already a criminal offence to deceive an immigration officer - "deception" being a vague terms which leaves the decision to the discretion of the officer. And the new Act even extends this offence to include anyone - such as a legal advisor - who makes an appeal on behalf of an asylum seeker which could be viewed as "deceptive". This amounts quite simply to denying the accused the right to defend their case in court - which is the very basis of the so-called "democratic" justice system.

As for the backlog of people waiting for 5-7 years or more for their applications to be processed, the government has ruled out any amnesty. Indeed out of those "old cases" they had processed by the end of 1998, only 19% were allowed to stay! Which means that 69% (actually 47,280 people) have been forced to leave Britain after having lived here for half a decade or more, with their children in school, etc... The right to remain after living here for 7 years has been declared discretionary, and not guaranteed, as had been hoped.

Appeals against refusal of asylum are to be simplified to a single "one stop appeal system" - meant to reduce the complexity and red tape, but in practice making it harder to get a refusal overturned. Appeals will now have to be fully or partly funded by the appellant, whereas previously these were not routinely charged for.

As for the detention of refugees, instead of (or in addition to) "initial" detention when they are not believed, asylum seekers will get "terminal" detention just before they are due to have their final appeal heard, if it is thought they will not comply with a removal order. However they will have the right to a hearing - after seven days in detention, after which release on bail might be allowed, if the court agrees.

A bogus debate

The liberal press and even the Refugee Council are keen to differentiate between "genuine cases" and "bogus" cases. The criticism they offer against the new Act is that the government is making it harder for the so- called genuine cases, contrary to its claims. They devote much space arguing the case for the great contribution which refugees can make to the economy - since 40% are middle class, and have been bosses, managers or technicians, while only 18% of applicants have no educational qualifications.

But those primarily targeted by the new Act and by the accusation of being "bogus" are the "clandestines", that is those who hide in the back of lorries, the holds of ships, tie themselves to the undercarriages of aeroplanes - and inevitably face detention when caught, if they manage to survive. They are most likely to be poor and most likely too, to be refused asylum, but are those who need it most - like the gypsies hounded out of Eastern Europe with no means of support (nor university degrees), or the totally destitute African refugees from the war-torn Central Lakes. It is to keep away "unwelcome" refugees such as these, that Blair's government has also come up with the idea of demanding a £10,000 deposit from Asian people visiting relatives, refundable on departure only.

Among these protagonists of a better, kinder policy, but only for "genuine cases", are those who recommend that the Home Office stops using the word "bogus" and substitutes "ineligible" instead! As far as they are concerned, the government can keep out the poor as long as it is done in the right language. The concern is purely to prevent racism being whipped up against "legitimate" black British citizens but not to argue against the content of the policy which criminalises and then deports most of the people who seek refuge in Britain.

But what is "bogus" about wanting to leave behind the social and human disaster that imperialism has created in one's country? What is the difference between living under a life- threatening repressive dictatorship and life-threatening poverty? The distinction between "bogus" asylum seekers and "genuine" ones, or between "economic" refugees and "political" refugees is, from the point of view of the reality of life, meaningless. All the more so, because in both cases, the responsibility of Western imperialism, and British imperialism in particular, is overwhelming.

When the British state decides to "recognise" and therefore legitimise a dictatorial regime (Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, Brunei, Saudi Arabia, Sudan - the list includes almost every Third World country with the exception of Iraq - and previously, Afghanistan...!) then anyone coming from these countries who has been tortured or persecuted by the regime in power has no "legitimate" claim to asylum. People from the so- called "democracy" of Bangladesh, for instance would all be treated as "economic migrants". But if they come to Britain, they are really escaping the consequences of imperialist looting of their country - that is abject poverty.

And yet what does it cost to an enormously wealthy country like Britain to open its doors to refugees fleeing dramatic situations in the Third World? In the days when it was profitable for British capital to seek cheap labour across the British empire, there were no questions asked. Today, the only difference is that the capitalist class no longer considers productive investment profitable enough. Hence "Fortress Britain" and the plight of asylum seekers.

But the root cause of this change in policy is the same that has generated the present social catastrophe for the British working class, including the present level of unemployment, the aggravation of conditions for workers and the running down of public services.

Far from being threatened by asylum seekers and immigrants, the British working class shares with them the same objective interests. For the British working class, the only way out of the present dead-end will be to force the capitalists to use their enormous profits and the state all its resources to create new, socially useful production and to rebuild public services. Then, very quickly, millions of jobs could be created and hundreds of thousands of affordable houses could be made available to those who need them. Then, the present social catastrophe would at last be resolved for British workers and there would be plenty of space for immigrants and asylum seekers to live and work in Britain - and no space at all for the dangerous reactionary demagogy with which Labour is playing today.

6 March 2000