Last month the Government announced that would-be economic migrants from the Eastern European countries soon joining the EU will be welcome in Britain only if they have a job to come to. Those without jobs will not be able to claim benefits, so they shouldn't bother coming.
More generally, the Government has begun to make a clearer distinction between "productive" economic migrants and those who are not (largely speaking, people who make a claim for asylum status). The softening towards some economic migrants reflects the large number of job vacancies in Britain - around half a million at any one time.
New Labour needs to conduct a balancing act. Yes, the bosses have a need for workers willing to do the jobs on offer. But the Government also wants to continue its policy on the asylum issue: deterring new claims and deporting anyone whose claim has failed.
The Government was happy to report a nine per cent drop in asylum applications in the last quarter of 2003. The figure was 52% less than the fourth quarter of 2002. And they were pleased to say that a record 17,040 asylum seekers and their dependents were removed in 2003 - 23 per cent more than 2002.
The distinction between "productive" and "non-productive" in relation to economic migrants seems pretty specious. If you let asylum seekers work they too would be productive economic migrants.
The distinction is political. Asylum seekers have to be considered stupid and feckless, or who else will the politicians have to scapegoat?
New Labour plays keeping up with the Joneses on the asylum issue, a very dangerous game. The BNP are growing and that is reflected in their attempts to go "mainstream" politically - they now talk about voluntary repatriation, for instance. Labour will not deal with competition from the BNP by talking tougher: "We'll take away their kids if they don't leave the country"; "We'll take away their legal rights even though we know that in the majority of cases immigration services make the wrong decisions on asylum claims." This kind of response feeds support for the BNP's racist message.
Unfortunately, New Labour's policies are part of a Europe-wide trend. Most of the old EU have now decided to restrict benefit rights to people in the new EU member-states - despite promises to the contrary a year ago. Last month the Dutch Parliament adopted a law which will see the mass deportation of people whose claims for asylum have failed. This will include some people who have been in Holland for a very long time.
Western governments are very quick to change their policy towards refugees in war-torn countries. Blair's government may do a deal with Tanzania to create a refugee camp for Somalians whose asylum claim has failed. This follows last month's political stitch-up between Somalian warlords. Yet most commentators are not hopeful that the deal will mean peace or safety for many Somalians. But that's not the real point here. For Tony Blair, Somalia generates the highest number of asylum claims each year. The Tanzanian camp is a way of getting the numbers down.
No to the scapegoating of asylum seekers! Defend the right to appeal in rejected asylum claims! Equality for all!
By Sam Ruby