Long way from home

A drain on our resources? Or a vital source of labour for an ageing population? Reva Klein examines attitudes to refugees and their effect on society and history

The above poem was written by a 14-year-old Zimbabwe girl, a pupil at Villiers High School in west London. Ruvimbo Bungwe wrote it, she says, "to express to other people how my friends who are refugees feel when other children make them feel bad by calling them names and telling them to go back to their country".

Racism towards asylum seekers and refugees is "particularly acute" in Britain, according to a report last year from the Council of Europe.

The council's commission against racism and intolerance cites the "xenophobic and intolerant" coverage of these groups in the media, but also the "tone and discourse" of politicians who support the adoption of "increasingly restrictive asylum and immigration laws".

With images of this island being "swamped" (the word Home Secretary David Blunkett now regrets using when talking recently about public services being unable to cope with large number of asylum seekers), and references in tabloids to the "scroungers, beggars and crooks" who come from the four corners of the world to take advantage of Britain's benefit system, it's easy to see how the demonology has taken hold. An article on asylum-policy proposals ("And stay out", May 23) in The Economist pointed out that "In the long run, it might be easier for the government (not to mention asylum seekers) if the public were given more facts and less demagoguery... rather than parroting the low figure for the proportion of applicants who are granted asylum at the first hurdle, ministers could publicise the far higher number who are eventually permitted to remain. Or they could point out that, in 2001, Britain ranked only 10th among EU countries for the number of asylum applications it received, relative to the size of host populations".

According to Home Office data, just over 70,000 asylum applications were made last year. This constitutes an 11 per cent fall on the previous year. Over the past decade, the numbers have averaged between 50,000 and 60,000. The variations are a direct result of war or civil unrest. For instance, the current figures reflect the violence and political instability in Zimbabwe and Afghanistan. This year, there has been an increase in the positive recognition rate, meaning that the Home Office has allowed more than 50 per cent of applicants to stay in the UK. This figure includes granting formal appeals and overturning its own official refusals.

While front-page stories this summer about Britain sinking under the weight of two million new immigrants in the next decade makes for dramatic copy, the figures from the anti-immigration group Migrant Watch UK are exaggerated, according to the Home Office, whose own estimates are that 1.3 million immigrants will come to the UK over the next 10 years if current trends continue - it is a big "if".

The term immigrants is itself misleading. While asylum seekers are included in this category, they make up only a proportion of it. The largest group of immigrants are British citizens returning to this country after living abroad. There are also non-Commonwealth foreign nationals working here legally. In addition there are many from the Commonwealth, known as "working holidaymakers" - mainly young Australians and New Zealanders - who are allowed to stay for up to two years and work in bars and restaurants, although they are legally prohibited from working in professional jobs. Nick Hardwick, director of the Refugee Council, says: "They constitute the largest group of illegal immigrants in the UK, but nobody is calling them a threat to civilisation as we know it."

Britain's benefits to asylum seekers are 30 per cent below the poverty line, lower than those of Ireland, Belgium and Denmark. Where a single adult citizen on income support receives pound;53.95 a week, a single adult asylum seeker gets pound;37.77. The Home Office explains that this is because the assistance provide by the National Asylum Support Service, which administers arrangements for asylum seekers, is seen as a short-term safety-net for the initial six-month period during which employment is prohibited. The Home Office points out that claimants on a full support package receive fully furnished accommodation (bed and breakfast or council flat including, a spokeswoman emphasises, "cooking utensils") and have their council tax and utilities paid.

Nick Hardwick says: "On the whole, it's people from countries with historical or language links who come to the UK. The idea that asylum seekers sit down and make complicated calculations on the comparative advantages of going to the UK rather than France or Germany is a fantasy. When I talk to refugees, on the whole they say that language is an important factor. So too is having family or a community from home here. Another important consideration is the perception that Britain is a more tolerant, more diverse society than elsewhere in Europe - which it is. The fact is that people only leave their families, homes and countries under the most extreme and adverse conditions - not for the sake of grotty bed and breakfasts."

Once they are granted refugee status and are allowed to work, asylum seekers invariably pay their own way, as the recent Home Office report, Understanding the decision-making of asylum seekers points out. Few have any knowledge of the benefit system before coming to Britain and "many expected to be self-sufficient when they arrived, either through finding employment or by drawing upon the support of co-ethnics or family groups".

Once successful applicants for asylum are allowed to work, they can make a significant contribution to the economy. While there is no data collected on refugees' earning trends, the Home Office's figures on legal immigrants (which includes refugees) show that in the tax year 1999-2000, they had made a net contribution of pound;2.4 billion to the UK economy. The Home Office study reveals that a sizeable proportion were educated, qualified and multilingual. More than one third either had a degree or some form of qualification and more than 60 per cent had left behind jobs in the professions, management or business. In addition, none who had been offered a job in the UK had refused it.

In its in-depth study of 65 asylum seekers, the Home Office concluded that "the decision to leave the country of origin was driven by the need to escape persecution and the key aim was to reach a place of safety".

Immigration is nothing new to Britain. People have been resettling here for as long as there have been wars, famines and racial, ethnic and religious prejudice. For centuries, Britain has taken in refugees - Calvinists in the 16th century, Huguenots in the 17th century, Catholics fleeing the French Revolution in the 18th century, Italians and eastern European Jews in the 19th - because of their contribution to the cultural, economic and social life of their adopted country. While there were civil eruptions of various degrees against the newcomers, the British government opened its portals to the oppressed and dispossessed of the world.

It was in the 1890s that the mood changed, with the arrival of tens of thousands of Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms (today referred to as "ethnic cleansing"). Particularly in impoverished areas like the east end of London, there was vociferous opposition to large numbers of outsiders moving in and, it was feared, taking away scarce jobs and accommodation. In an echo of the language and sentiment of today, the East London Advertiser of the time bellowed against the "swarms of foreign Jews invading the East End". The furore signalled the first of nearly a dozen immigration controls to be put into place over the next century in this country.

After heated debates in Parliament, the Aliens Act was introduced in 1905. It included an amendment excluding those fleeing persecution from its provisions. This act not only signified a change in British immigration policy, but also the beginning of the end of the openness of western countries. Migration patterns, coupled with the economic slump of the Twenties and Thirties, created a new mood in the industrialised nations, leading to strict quotas on the numbers allowed into countries.

The tumultuous events of the 20th century in Europe alone ensured a surfeit of refugees. The Second World War produced 40 million displaced Europeans. Hot on its heels came the Cold War and the flight of eastern Europeans from Stalinism and its successors. This led to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights followed by the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, ensuring further protection for refugees. It was to be put to good use throughout the rest of the century.

In the past two decades, a variety of factors including the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the conflict in the Balkans (the latter producing somewhere in the region of four million refugees and internally displaced people) has created unprecedented numbers of asylum applications to industrialised countries (a staggering increase of 824 per cent between 1983 and 1993). This has resulted in a hardening of the collective heart of western Europe. Together with the impact of many thousands more fleeing persecution and war in Afghanistan, Angola, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, and elsewhere, governments of the EU came together in the early Nineties to thrash out new immigration and asylum policies. These policies not only limited numbers allowed in, but have put in place new, stringent provisions making it more difficult to claim asylum, and also ensuring asylum seekers'

return to countries through which they had travelled, and ultimately to the countries from which they originally fled.

As a direct result of making it harder for outsiders to enter EU countries through the Treaty of Amsterdam 1999 - the creation of "Fortress Europe" - some asylum seekers have had to turn to illegal means to make their way here, including resorting to the expensive and unscrupulous services of human traffickers and smugglers. This trend has led to the blurring of distinctions between bona fide refugees fleeing persecution, and so-called economic migrants, who seek opportunities in the developed world not open to them in their home countries. These traffickers make the business of attempting to enter an EU country more dangerous, as we have seen from the tragic cases of people being asphyxiated in lorries, or dying on the undercarriages of Eurostar trains.

The strange irony is that these harsh immigration policies are more to do with the fears of xenophobes than with economic necessity or social reality. With it's ageing population and shortages in skilled professions such as teaching, medicine and nursing as well as public transport and construction, Britain needs the expertise of many of the asylum seekers.

A 1995 Home Office study showed that asylum seekers who had exceptional leave to remain in the UK were generally well-educated and skilled. More than a third had either a degree or post-graduate or professional qualification and the majority had been employed in their own countries, with more than half working in a profession or as managers and businesspeople. They were linguistically gifted as well, with 65 per cent speaking at least two other languages besides their mother tongue.

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