The riot last week at Campsfield centre for immigration detainees near Oxford has reignited the debate about the way people seeking refuge in Britain are treated.
A recent report published by the Low Pay Unit suggests that the popular picture of asylum seekers as scroungers determined to get into Britain so that they can milk state benefits is a dangerous myth which could be depriving the economy of valuable expertise. The detailed study of one group of refugees and asylum seekers carried out in February this year reveals that all of them had completed a university or college education almost all at degree level or higher. Several had degrees in more than one subject.
People qualified as teachers and lecturers formed the second largest group - suggesting that there could be an untapped pool of teachers in the country unable to work because of legal barriers. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work until they have been in the country six months.
The survey covered 37 refugees and asylum seekers plus focus groups, and was backed up by some little known Home Office research carried out in 1995 which found that 84 per cent of a sample of 263 refugees had had secondary education and 60 per cent had worked in professional or managerial jobs.
The report points out that far from seeking a life on benefit, most asylum seekers sacrifice good jobs in their home country in order to escape persecution. For most, life on benefit here will involve drastic reduction in standard of living. Ninety per cent of the survey respondents had been in work before they came to the UK, and the rest had been full-time students.
The 1996 Asylum and Immigration Act, argues the report, was enacted on the assumption that most asylum seekers "are nothing more more than a drain on the public purse". The Act removed their entitlement to benefits and introduced fines of #163;5,000 for employers employing people without right-to-work status. The backlog of asylum applications and appeals stood at nearly 74,000 earlier this year.
According to the Refugee Council, there were 952 people being held in prison or detention centres for immigration reasons on January 31 this year. In February, replying to a question about the average time spent by immigrants in detention, Baroness Blatch told the House of Lords that 35 people had been held at Rochester detention centre for six to 12 months, and a further nine for more than a year. There is no automatic review of the decision to detain by any independent authority, according to the council.
The new Home Secretary, Jack Straw, has scrapped the rule which obliged couples to prove that the "primary purpose" of their marriage was not merely to get into Britain. But he has tightened up the requirement that incomers must prove they can support and accommodate themselves here.
The report quotes one unemployed philosophy teacher, an asylum seeker since 1993: "The UK could get a lot out of refugees; they bring rich potential and their education, which the UK did not have to pay for. If they were allowed to work and not discriminated against, they could contribute to building the country and people here would stop blaming them."
The Asylum Trap, by Helga Pile, published by the Low Pay Unit (0171 713 7616) and the World University Service