Defend asylum seekers!
By Lucy Clement
People applying for asylum in Britain are facing attack from three sides as Tony Blair pledges to cut the number of asylum claimants by half by September.
But refugees have found unlikely support in the form of a High Court judge, who has ruled that Government policy denying benefits to many asylum seekers is a breach of international human rights law.
The Government had been trying to make destitution for refugees its official policy. Asylum seekers who failed to file their claim immediately on entry or to convince immigration officers they have a genuine reason for failing to do so were denied any official help in finding food or shelter - left to sleep rough.
During the legal challenge, the Government's QC argued that in fact most asylum seekers find assistance from charities or well-wishers, prompting a caustic comment from the judge that Ministers seemed to be relying on 'Good Samaritans' to avoid breaching human rights. Even the police are concerned that the consequence of the destitution policy will be to leave vulnerable people with no option but to turn to crime.
But David Blunkett remains unmoved - saying he is 'deeply concerned' by the court's ruling. The Government's appeal will be heard on 3 March.
In a second attack on asylum seekers, the Government has added eight more countries to its 'white list' of so-called safe countries.
Having ditched the Tories' asylum 'white list' in 1998, Ministers have now done a u-turn, reinstated and expanded it. The list now includes almost all of eastern Europe, plus Cyprus, some former Soviet republics and Jamaica.
Immigration authorities will presume that claims for asylum from these countries are 'unfounded'.
This is a transparent attempt by the Government to cut the number of claims no matter what the human consequences. As Amnesty International points out: "So-called 'safe' countries are anything but safe if you're a Roma family suffering persecution in eastern Europe." In February Channel 4 News reported on evidence of torture and enslavement of women in the sex trade in Romania, where an undercover team from the programme 'bought' an abused woman for £250. She had been kidnapped, beaten with red-hot chains and raped. Romania, according to the Government, is a 'safe' country.
Then there's Jamaica: as recently as October 2002, asylum in the UK was granted to two gay Jamaican men. Gay sex is illegal and punishable by up to 10 years hard labour in Jamaica: widespread homophobic attacks and murders are ignored by the authorities. In October 2002 the Jamaican High Commission said it was "unaware of persecution" of gays. But now the claims which were successful in October will be presumed to be unfounded. The gay rights group Outrage says: "Obviously Mr Blunkett does not consider violence against the gay community a form of persecution."
The third attack on asylum seekers arises from the Government's policy of locking them up in rural 'asylum accommodation centres' while their claims are processed. Whipped up by the Tories and right-wing media - portraying all asylum-seekers as potential terrorists in our midst - local residents have organised protests against the planned centres.
The centres are wrong because locking up asylum-seekers is wrong - however, this is not the source of most of the local opposition, which it seems amounts to a combination of racism and nimbyism. Yet that combination already points to trouble. An Afghan asylum-seeker was murdered in Southampton on Saturday 8 February. Four Afghans have been attacked in that city in the past two months and police believe there may be a racial motivation for the attack. Yet the Government is persisting with its plans to house 400 asylum-seekers in the former naval base of HMS Daedalus in Lee-on-Solent, Hampshire, a seaside town with a population of just 6,000 and surely a potential flashpoint for hostility.
The white list, the destitution policy and the accommodation/detention centres are all part of an effort by the Government to appear tough on immigration, to play to racism and to the right. It is a despicable way to treat people who may be victims of violence, torture and persecution. Yet as the build-up to war with Iraq and the warnings of the threat of terrorism intensify, there will be ever more pressure from the right to lock up asylum seekers - and ever more fuel for the BNP's anti-immigration campaigns.
While the High Court ruling is good news for now, we should not rely on the courts - and on a justice system notoriously loaded against the poor and immigrants - to defend refugees. Socialists and trade unionists should be leading our own campaigns against the bigotry and racism, and to defend asylum seekers.
The White List
Asylum applications from these countries will be presumed unfounded under new Government rules.
- The 10 EU accession countries: Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia
- Albania, Bulgaria, Jamaica, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro.