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Asylum: Tories And Labour Play The Race Card
THE TORIES face the prospect of an electoral massacre on 7 June. So they are desperately playing the asylum card - a variant of the race card. It's the old, old tactic of sowing confusion, attempting to divert attention from the Tories' real aim: a Britain that would be even more of a privileged haven for their wealthy big-business friends.
Openly calling for poverty-level wages, minimal (privatised) services, high profits and low taxes for millionaires, would not win many votes. Instead, with the enthusiastic help of gutter tabloid papers, they are going all out to whip up prejudice against asylum-seekers, using thinly disguised racism.
The promise to lock up all asylum-seekers pending acceptance or instant deportation is a blatant attempt to criminalise refugees, labelling them all as "bogus". This thinly disguised racism also hits at all immigrant and minority communities in Britain.
Hague indignantly denies charges of Tory racism. Asylum, he says, is a completely separate issue, a legitimate question for debate. But the Tories' crude language says different. Retiring MP John Townend denounced the creation of a "mongrel society". Hague himself referred to Britain becoming a "foreign land".
Prominent among the Tories' election strategists is Andrew Lansley, who openly boasted to the Observer that their anti-immigrant propaganda in the 1992 election had "played particularly well in the tabloids and has the potential to hurt [Labour]".
Over the last few years the Tories and their tabloid cheer-leaders have bombarded their readers with stories of "floods of illegal immigrants... swamping Britain... scrounging on benefits... stealing and begging... taking the best housing... grabbing our jobs". Tory leaders, echoed by Labour ministers, have claimed that many asylum-seekers are not genuine refugees but are really "economic migrants" seeking a better life in Britain.
Official figures, however, show that the big majority of asylum-seekers come from countries ruled by dictators, torn by violent civil war, or subject to ethnic or religious persecutions. At the top of the list are Afghanistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Iraq and the former Yugoslav states.
The great majority of asylum-seekers are people who have been forced, as a last resort, to flee from war, political repression, or some other kind of persecution. Many embark on the ordeal of long, hazardous journeys, often on foot, risking death by starvation, sickness, drowning or suffocation.
"Racist abuse that would never be tolerated if directed to other ethnic minorities has become 'common currency' towards refugees." This statement comes from the Association of Chief Police Officers' Manual 2001. The incitement of such abuse by the Tories and the tabloids has led to an increase in racist attacks.
In Leicester, for instance, Somali refugee Liban Ali was attacked in June 1999 by a gang of white men. Two were later jailed for GBH with intent. Meanwhile, Liban Ali is still being treated for the injuries inflicted on him.
Labour has not combated the Tory offensive. At times, ministers appear to be competing to scapegoat asylum-seekers. Last week the Sun, with its "inside" Number 10 sources, announced that David Blunkett will be the next Home Secretary. The point being: "He'll blitz asylum cheats".
Britain should not be a "soft touch", says Hague. But asylum seekers are hardly featherbedded at present. Under Labour, they each get £26.54 in vouchers - a humiliating system - and £10 in cash, amounting to only 70% of the value of income support. Under a Tory regime, most of them (as opposed to 1,780 currently) would be locked up in detention centres.
In the last year, a total of £751 million was spent supporting asylum-seekers awaiting a decision (including £575 million paid to local authorities to provide accommodation, education, etc). This is less than one-fifth of 1% of total public spending.
The 50 extra detention centres needed to implement Tory policy would cost an extra £2 billion to build and an extra £1 billion a year to run.
Working-class families who are struggling to survive from day to day react against the idea of asylum-seekers getting privileged treatment. The gutter tabloids conjure up the impression that refuges are getting the first pick of housing, taking good jobs, and receiving lavish state benefits. The reality is very different.
Refugees get the very worst housing, run by slum landlords. The housing charity Shelter reports that a fifth of refugee accommodation is unfit for human habitation. If they are allowed to stay in Britain, refugees mostly have to take the kind of low-paid, dirty, unhealthy jobs most workers really don't want, even when many refugees have the training and education to do much better jobs.
Unlike the Tory bigots, most people (as a recent ICM/Guardian poll shows) recognize that asylum-seekers and migrants make a valuable contribution to the British economy, helping to counteract the economic effects of an ageing population.
The real objection to locking up all asylum seekers is not the extra cost. Asylum-seekers are not criminals. The great majority are refugees seeking to exercise a democratic, internationally recognized, legal right to a safe refuge from conflict or persecution. There is no justification for depriving them of their freedom and subjecting them to the demoralizing conditions of squalid detention centres.
Instead of more and more restricting the right to asylum, Britain should be striving to give humane, practical effect to this basic human right.
Refugees should be allowed to enter the country by legal routes to make their applications. Applications should be dealt within a reasonable time period. Applicants should get legal aid so they can prepare their cases properly, and be given the right to a full hearing before their case is decided.
If their applications are rejected, applicants should have the right to appeal to an elected tribunal, including representatives of trade unions, community organizations, welfare and legal rights organizations, etc.
While waiting for a decision, applicants should be allowed to work or be entitled to the normal level of income support, housing benefit, and so on.
Central government should adequately fund local authorities to cover the extra costs of housing, education, and social services. It should also fund the NHS to meet the health-care needs of refugees.
The Tories calculate they can stir up prejudice to justify an attack on the rights of asylum seekers. This is a cynical camouflage for their urge to attack all democratic rights and to launch an offensive against the conditions of all workers.
Myth And Reality
IS BRITAIN being flooded by refugees and immigrants? This is the media myth. So intense is the propaganda that the average guess of people responding to opinion polls is that asylum-seekers and immigrants make up 22% of Britain's population. The real figure is under 8%.
In 2000 Britain received 76,000 applications for asylum (97,900 people including children). This is 0.03% of our 60-million population - just a drop, not a flood. Britain does not get more asylum-seekers than other countries.
In terms of asylum-seekers per head of population, Britain is in ninth place in Europe.
In 1999, nearly seven millions people were forced to flee from wars, repression and other kinds of persecution. Only a tiny proportion come to Britain, 0.04% of the total world refugee population last year.
In The Socialist 5 December 2009: