Desperately seeking asylum

14th June 1996 at 01:00
Refugees: We Left Because We Had To, Second edition. By Jill Rutter The Refugee Council,3 Bondway, London SW8 lSF. Pounds 6. Age range 14-18

This new edition of the Refugee Council's handbook is most timely. In the brief period since its first appearance in 1991, refugees have increased in numbers (currently around l8 million international migrants, plus 25 million displaced within states).

They have also been increasingly aggressively targeted by host countries, with Britain leading the way. In 1990, 89 per cent of asylum-seekers arriving in this country were granted refugee status or "exceptional leave to remain". By 1995, this had dropped to 23 per cent.

The minority of asylum-seekers allowed in now encounter a society whose official hospitality has dwindled from the frugal to the vestigial, thanks to legislation on accommodation (1993) and social security (1996).

Throughout Europe, the deployment of apocalyptic metaphors about invasions and tidal waves has effectively inflated the scale and obscured the nature of refugee movements. Asylum applications have halved since 1992 and Britain's 20,000 arrivals (successful asylum-seekers plus an estimated 7,000 illegal entrants) will scarcely have enlarged the country's 0.4 per cent refugee population.

The handbook's two key chapters, "Arriving in Britain" and "How do we receive refugees?", document the legal and social processes encountered by refugees coming here. At least the 35 per cent with no English will have been spared the tabloid view that they are "eating us out of house and home" and that we should "send them packing".

We Left Because We Had To is a substantial 250-page study which places the phenomenon of forced movement in a well-researched historical and geographical context.

The book displays a judicious sense of balance. Thus, content is categorised into information, testimony and student activities. Opinions and speculations are invited, but the generous provision of facts ensures that these will be well-informed. The reader is equipped to cope with such challenging tasks as the analysis of the British response to refugees from Nazi Europe, or the distinction between refugees and economic migrants.

Another sort of balance is achieved by the juxtaposition of historical outlines and summaries of contemporary issues with intensely personal accounts. This ensures that human realities are never obscured by dates and data.

Historical sections establish key continuities; some negative, such as the enduring scapegoating of all kinds of "outsiders"; some positive, such as society's evident capacity for absorbing, and benefiting from, admixtures of desperate incomers.

This welcome injection of liberalism ("In what ways do you think we can benefit from mixing with people from other cultures?") is very modestly priced, thanks to support from the European Commission, the United Nations, and French and Danish refugee organisations.

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