13 October 2000 Edition

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British government feeds racism



As Dublin Justice Minister John O'Donoghue presides over an immigration and asylum policy that is increasingly weighted against applicants, the impact of British legislation provides a warning of what may be to come. New Labour's Immigration and Asylum Act infringes human rights and has encouraged racism against asylum seekers and immigrants

In 1997, one of the first acts of the new Labour government in Britain was to announce a root and branch review of immigration and asylum legislation. The government had accepted successive legislation in the 1990s (the 1993 Asylum Act and the 1996 Asylum and Immigration Act) were cumbersome, unfair and made immigration and asylum policy too complicated and slow.

With the 1996 Act, the Tories had taken away welfare benefits from so-called in-country asylum applicants and extended detention of asylum seekers. After the general election in 1997, the new Labour government consulted with the main refugee organisations, which, having dealt with Tory governments for 18 years, approached the process with good will, advising the government on the main aspects of a fair and just asylum system.

The British government has recently announced its intention to detain up to 4,000 asylum seekers at any given time in detention centres and prisons. Asylum seekers are the only group of people who are locked up without charge or trial and indefinitely. Children are also detained
The result was the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act. The Act took away cash benefits from all asylum seekers, replacing them with vouchers to be exchanged for food at designated supermarkets. Asylum seekers could not receive change for the vouchers. Now, with the scheme in full operation, asylum seekers have to travel long distances to go to a designated supermarket. With hardly any cash available to them, they have to make those journeys on foot. They are subjected to humiliation and attacks at supermarket checkouts from other shoppers and supermarket staff because they are easily identified as asylum seekers. In school playgrounds, games are played between teams of `voucher children' and the rest.

The 1999 Act also extended detention of asylum seekers. The government has recently announced its intention to detain up to 4,000 asylum seekers at any given time in detention centres and prisons. Asylum seekers are the only group of people who are locked up without charge or trial and indefinitely. Children are also detained. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees has guidelines on detention which state that asylum seekers should only be detained in exceptional circumstances and for a maximum of 48 hours and that no children should be detained. The British system is in clear contradiction with this policy and will without doubt be challenged under the new British Human Rights legislation.

Overall, the government's actions and policy gave the green light to the Tories, who have exploited the issue for electoral gain in the recent local and London Mayoral elections. In the run-up to the elections, the tabloid media was littered with inflammatory and racist headlines, which bore no resemblance to the actual reality faced by asylum seekers.

The British government was recently criticised in the international arena. In September, the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (UNCERD) condemned the British government for its treatment of asylum seekers. Specifically, UNCERD expressed concern that ``there is increasing tension between asylum seekers and the host communities, which has led to an increase in racial harassment'' and recommended that the government ``take leadership in sending out positive messages about asylum seekers and in protecting them from racial harassment''.

The Committee also expressed concern about the compulsory dispersal system introduced in the 1999 Act, that ``it may hamper adequate access of asylum seekers to expert legal and other necessary services, i.e. health and education''. It recommended that the government ``implement a strategy ensuring that asylum seekers have access to essential services''.

Dispersal of asylum seekers has meant people are housed away from already established communities in big cities in Britain, where they are subject to increasingly vicious racist attacks. In June, Jan Passelbesi was murdered in Newport in a fatal racist attack, leaving his 14-year-old daughter an orphan. Over the summer, attacks on asylum seekers continued, notably in Hull, where two Afghan asylum seekers were stabbed, an Asian shop was fire bombed and a Kosovan asylum seeker lost the sight in one eye as a result of a racist attack. These attacks happened against the backdrop of further announcements by the government regarding increased detention of asylum seekers in centres and further erosion of the rights enshrined in the UN Convention on Refugees.

In September, in apparent contradiction with the government's overall approach to immigration and asylum, Home Office Minister Barbara Roche announced the government's intention to establish a scheme akin to the Green Card scheme in the USA to deal with acute skill shortages in Britain. Although the opening up of the debate on economic migration to Britain is welcome, it is ironic that there are 2,000 doctors currently struggling through the asylum system without being able to practice, when there is an acute shortage of doctors in the National Health System (NHS). The government has also been at pains to distinguish between political asylum seekers and so-called economic migrants, emphasising that the latter would not be entitled to remain in Britain.

At this year's Labour Conference in Brighton, following the efforts of campaigners and the General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union Bill Morris, the government conceded to have a thorough review of the voucher scheme and agreed that asylum seekers should receive change for the vouchers. However, the government is likely to limit the impact of the change in its policy by providing small denomination vouchers. Campaigners believe that only the complete abolition of vouchers and restoration of benefits to asylum seekers will eliminate the stigma attached to being an asylum seeker.

The situation in Britain reflects the climate in the rest of Europe. In Spain, there has been a move to increase border security across the Gibraltar straits and this has been accompanied by an increase in racial tension in Andalucia in particular. In Germany, there has been a major upsurge of violent racism towards new migrants in the east of the country, including a number of racist murders and attacks on asylum seeker hostels. In Austria and Switzerland, parties campaigning on an openly anti-immigrant platform have seen a big increase in their support in the polls.

In Ireland, new tougher asylum measures have also been accompanied by an increase in racist assaults and racial hostility. Over the summer, a black British man had to flee Dublin after a vicious racist attack on his father and subsequent threats to his life.

In some other countries, most notably Italy, the discussion has begun to move in a slightly different direction. A number of amnesties by the government for those in the country without permits, whether failed asylum seekers or illegal entrants, was the subject of controversy, but did not initially lead to a racist backlash. This appears to be partly a result of a framework being set for the debate on the positive need for new migration to Italy. This more positive outlook has begun to shift recently with the intervention of the Catholic Church to oppose `non-Christian' immigration into Italy, raising hostility to Muslim entrants.

There is growing opposition in Britain to the Labour government's use of immigration and asylum in their attempts to outdo the Tories. A broad coalition of individuals, including politicians and celebrities, refugee organisations, faith groups and trade unions, was set up in June under the banner of Speak Out Against Racism - Defend Asylum Seekers. The campaign's demands are to:

Defend the right of refugees to seek asylum in Britain under the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees;

Demand an end to attempts by political parties and leaders to exploit racism for electoral gain;

Call for legal action against newspapers that publish material inciting racial hatred;

Call upon the government to restore asylum rights by ending the voucher, designated accommodation and compulsory dispersal systems and restoring benefits.

The campaign is organising a series of protests in the run-up to the next general election. Hands Around the Home Office - End Vouchers and Dispersal is the first such event organised by the campaign on Saturday 4 November at 12 noon at the Home Office in London, 50 Queen Anne's Gate (nearest tube St James' Park). Further details about the campaign can be obtained from the National Assembly Against Racism, 28 Commercial Street, London, E1 6LS. Tel/Fax: 020 7247 9907. E-mail: [email protected]

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