Uncivilised restrictions on asylum-seekers

8th June 2001 at 01:00
IN one of Bertolt Brecht's plays he suggests that we can measure the quality of a society by its treatment of its most vulnerable people. The recent street disturbances in Oldham make clear that, by that measure, we are not very civilised in Britain. They reminded me of Salman Rushdie's analysis that when Britain could no longer export an empire, it imported a new colony to carry on the same social and economic relations with black people.

Writing at the time of the 1980s riots, he concluded: "The members of the new colony have only one real problem. That problem is white people. Racism, of course, is not their problem. It is yours. We simply suffer the effects of your problem."

The television images from Oldham showed a physical environment steeped in poverty - in stark contrast to the prosperity of suburban Britain, but reminiscent of Toxteth, St Paul's and Brixton 20 years ago. Where are the parks, the community centres, trees on the street, the pavement cafes? People need public spaces to make culture and communities which work.

Lee Jasper, who advises Ken Livingstone on policing in London, writing in the Guardian, described his own experience growing up in Oldham, and the repetitive patterns of how poverty and exclusion feed racism. Most depressing was his account of the role teachers played in his school in reinforcing the racism encountered outside. And even if there has been a total transformation in Oldham's educational institutions since then, it is not surprising if people so totally failed by schooling, and by other state agencies, have little hope that giving the system a second chance will make an impact on their chances in life.

I was depressed, too, by the debates about asylum-seekers during the general election campaign. You would think that Britain was sinking under a tide of people desperate to move here. But we are not. Numbers of applications for asylum dropped last month.

It has been a curious feature of Tory policy of the past 20 years that a party in other respects besotted with the American xample should fail to recognise the contribution to American prosperity made by their migrant communities.

Entry for highly-skilled migrants, economic or political, is regulated, but by British standards it is relatively open. Less formally skilled migrants take a riskier route to navigate entry, just like here. The contrast lies in the treatment people get on arrival. There, high levels of investment in public education offer migrants the chance to gain qualifications and bring their skills to the economy. At the same time, mechanisms are in place to recognise and accredit overseas qualifications and experience. Neither is available here, despite developments over the past four years.

Yet, there is evidence in abundance that over-restrictive policies are short-sighted, and work against our economic and cultural interests. I live in Leicester, a city whose prosperity has benefited significantly from the creative and entrepreneurial people displaced from Idi Amin's Uganda.

The lessons of its experience, though, have been slow to spread. Geoffrey Howe's panic to avert the arrival of large numbers of Hong Kong's population at the time the colony was handed back to China is replicated regularly. More recently, Jack Straw's Home Office has obliged asylum-seekers to live below the poverty line, and to use vouchers instead of cash.

The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education has just finished a modest but important piece of work, interviewing asylum-seekers to match their skills and experience to job opportunities in the local economy. Asylum-seekers bring talents aplenty, and want to contribute while they wait and wait for decisions on their future. Our rules stop them from taking a job for the first six months, but an enlightened Home Office would use that time to strengthen skills in English, and vocational skills.

As Gandhi said when asked what he thought of Western civilisation, "I think it would be a good idea".

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education

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