Lunatics about asylum

There is no asylum crisis in the UK. It is a political crisis of the government's own making.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

Everybody in the UK and Europe seems to argue that there is an asylum crisis.

So keen is UK home secretary David Blunkett to push asylum to the top of the political agenda that he welcomed the victory of French centre-right parties in the recent government election – which meant the humiliation of New Labour’s supposed allies in the Socialist party – on the basis that ‘We can do business with this government’ about clamping down on asylum seekers (1).

UK prime minister Tony Blair had high hopes of using this week’s European Union (EU) summit in Spain to achieve a European-wide crackdown on illegal immigration – slightly dented on 16 June when France, Sweden and Luxemburg opposed his calls for trade sanctions against countries that fail to curb immigration flows (2). But on 12 June, the government’s stringent Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill cleared the House of Commons by a significant majority, and is now en route to the House of Lords (3).

On 2 June, David Blunkett confirmed that the Home Office overspent its 2001 immigration budget by over £600million (4). This week he made a publicity trip to Dover, to mark the launch of a new scheme to detect illegal immigrants (5). Also this week, a MORI poll commissioned by a number of refugee organisations found that only a quarter of adults, and 19 percent of 15- to 18-year olds, said that they would be welcoming to asylum seekers (6). And the controversy over the government’s plans to build a new centre for asylum seekers in a rural area outside of Nottingham in the East Midlands rumbles on.

All of this gives the impression that the UK is in the midst of a major crisis over asylum. But it is not.

The most interesting finding of this week’s MORI poll was that the British public hugely overestimates the number of asylum seekers in the UK. Most people questioned believe that Britain takes in nearly a quarter of the world’s asylum seekers, and teenagers believe the figure to be 31 percent. In fact, Britain takes less than two percent of the world’s asylum seekers (7).

In terms of asylum applications per 1000 of the population, the UK ranks sixth in the EU, behind Belgium, Netherlands, Ireland, Austria and Denmark; and in total, the UK asylum applications represent less than one percent of the world’s refugee population (8). There were 76,040 asylum applications in the UK in 2000, representing more than 98,000 individuals; and the Home Office claims that 32 percent of initial substantive decisions resulted in asylum seekers being allowed to stay (9).

Of course, the numbers of applicants who actually stay in the UK – whether they are accepted or not – is unclear, as relatively few are actually deported. But you could still fit a years’ worth of asylum seekers into a football stadium – which, for a country of 60million people, is hardly a big deal.

What about the British public’s attitudes to asylum seekers? It is not surprising that people so overestimate the numbers, given that politicians and the media never shut up about what a problem asylum seekers are. But within that context, the MORI poll indicates that people are pretty relaxed. Maybe only 26 percent of adults say that they would welcome asylum seekers with open arms, but very few say they are actually hostile. And if teenagers are less tolerant and sympathetic than adults – what else would you expect? Teenagers are known for their gawky prejudices, which tend to change once they get into the real world.

The so-called asylum crisis, then, does not come from numbers of asylum seekers or from attitudes of the British public. It is a political crisis of the UK government’s own making, where asylum seekers have become the focus of its own insecurities. The government is declaring war on asylum seekers because of the problems it faces here at home.

The UK government is scared of its own electorate. Witness its reaction to the election of three British National Party (BNP) councillors in the northern town of Burnley in the local elections earlier this year. All the evidence suggests that this minor victory for the BNP did not signify a resurgence of British fascism, but a disaffection with politics in general, and a two-fingered gesture of disdain for New Labour. (Read Who’s afraid of the far right?, by Mick Hume; Who divided Oldham? by Brendan O’Neill).

Yet by talking up the significance and danger of such a result, the political elite has shown the depth of its distrust of the voting public. It castigates people for their repellent views – and at the same time, shows a craven desire to repackage these views on New Labour’s own terms.

So it is that on one hand, you get the sense that the government privately wants the BNP simply to be obliterated; and on the other, the government ratchets up its own anti-immigrant rhetoric. The political elite is so insecure about the distance between itself and the electorate that it does not even dare to argue against the kind of intolerance it professes to despise. Instead, the government takes at face value the idea that people are really concerned about immigration, and puts the issue centre of its own political stage.

But we should also recognise that the political elite really does see a problem with asylum seekers. The government’s attacks on refugees are not based on the racist policies of the past, but on the newer politics of fear and control. This accounts for the preoccupation with illegal asylum seekers slipping from the Red Cross camp at Sangatte in France through the Channel Tunnel as much as it accounts for the government’s bizarre policy of housing asylum applicants in camps in provincial areas scattered throughout Britain.

As Josie Appleton has argued on spiked, ‘Asylum seekers are seen as lawless, defying boundaries and breeding instability’ (10). The only way the government can see to deal with the spectre of the lawless asylum seeker is to impose increasing measures of control and segregation, under the close scrutiny of officialdom. Through such nervous, short-sighted policies, the government risks turning the asylum crisis of its imagination into something more real.

If the government were confident enough in its ability to integrate asylum seekers into British society, it would let them settle and work where they want to – which for many would be London, where they can easily become part of everyday life and work. Sending refugees to some rural area where there is nothing going on is, by contrast, a recipe for instability and resentment. Throwing money and bureaucracy at measures designed to keep asylum seekers out of the UK only draws attention to the authorities’ inability to know what to do with people when they get here – and to the fact that such measures don’t work. And constantly talking up any problem only makes it worse.

But the government should know that. It’s had plenty of experience.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Race

(1) Blunkett hails French election result, BBC News, 17 June 2002

(2) The Times (London), 18 June 2002

(3) Asylum bill clears Commons, BBC News, 12 June 2002

(4) Blunkett admits huge asylum overspend, BBC News, 2 June 2002

(5) Asylum seeker numbers ‘over-estimated’, BBC News, 17 June 2002

(6) Asylum seeker numbers ‘over-estimated’, BBC News, 17 June 2002

(7) Asylum seeker numbers ‘over-estimated’, BBC News, 17 June 2002

(8) Destination UK: Countries of origin, BBC News

(9) Destination UK: Countries of origin, BBC News

(10) The battle of Sangatte, by Josie Appleton

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Topics Politics


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