By Stan Crooke, TGWU rep, Scottish Refugee Council
For months tabloid gutter journalism in England has stereotyped asylum seekers as spongers and scroungers. They have been accused of waging gang-warfare in Dover, aggressive begging on the streets of London, and defrauding the benefits system from one end of the country to the other. In early March, when 120 asylum-seekers and dependents were "dispersed" from Wandsworth to Glasgow, the Scottish tabloids joined in the frenzied denunciations of asylum seekers in general, and Romanian asylum seekers in particular.
The Scottish Sun has led the way: "Cash scandal: refugees get 10 new teachers - deaf Scott can't have one!" read its 14 March front page headline. Readers of the Scottish Sun were quick to pick up the message. The paper reported that angry callers from all over Scotland were swamping its special hotline to "blast" the government for letting Britain became the laughing stock of Europe: "It gives asylum seekers huge handouts while millions of our own people struggle."
The Daily Record, the biggest circulation Scottish tabloid, knew it had a fight on its hands. It hit back two days later with an "exclusive": "Cheeky beggars - refugees arrested scrounging days after they got here!" The fact that 12 of the women who had arrived a few days earlier had gone begging with their children in Bishopbriggs (a middle class suburb of Glasgow) merited front-page coverage and a double page spread inside the paper.
The Record pressed all the buttons of bigotry. Asylum seekers were "flooding" Britain, "creaming off the benefits system" and were responsible for "almost-nightly street battles, theft and attacks".
Before the end of the week over half the asylum seekers who had been bussed up to Glasgow only a few days earlier were being bussed back down to Wandsworth. The tabloid pack were jubilant. "The cheeky beggars are booted out" trumpeted the Mirror/Record, claiming that before their forced removal they had "sold furniture from flats kitted out at taxpayers' expense". The Sun proudly reported that 52,876 had called its hotline to demand a clampdown on refugees, compared with just 945 who thought the government was doing a good job.
By the end of the week it was clear from the Sunday papers that the government was prepared to pander even further to the anti-asylum seeker hysteria.
Although only 0.05% of the world's refugees end up in Britain, Labour Party polling has found that voters now regarded asylum seekers as the third most serious issue in Britain, surpassed only by health and education. The government was now preparing to create a special fast-track-to-deportation procedure for any asylum seeker found begging, under which they would be removed from the country within four weeks.
The starting point of this wave of hysteria about "bogus asylum seekers" is the ongoing dismantling of the post-war institution of asylum. This is being carried out not just by the British government but by governments throughout the Western World.
In the decades immediately following the Second World War the institution of asylum, rooted in a United Nations Convention dating from 1951, served a dual purpose.
Politically, it was proof of the democratic credentials of the Western European states and America. Stalinism equalled oppression (as indeed it did), which led people to flee to the west. Capitalism, on the other hand, supposedly equalled freedom because it granted asylum to refugees from Stalinism.
Economically, the institution of asylum allowed shortfalls in the labour market to be filled. Even rejected asylum seekers were given some form of leave to remain, in order to help relieve manpower shortages in the post-war boom.
Both these factors have long since ceased to operate. Stalinism has collapsed throughout Eastern Europe, while post-war boom has been replaced by more traditional boom-and-bust cycles. The system of asylum which they propped up has likewise begun to disintegrate.
Other factors have accelerated the process of disintegration. The emergence of mass international travel has facilitated the movement of people from one continent to another, increasing numbers able to gain access to asylum procedures - at a time when western states are trying to reduce primary immigration to zero.
And, unlike in the immediate post-war years, asylum seekers are no longer white-skinned members of the Eastern European intelligentsia. Now the majority of asylum seekers come from Africa and the Middle East (although the general pattern has been partially distorted by asylum seekers generated by the break up of Yugoslavia).
For some two decades European governments have been introducing legislation to try to prevent asylum seekers from reaching their shores, and to make it more difficult for those who arrive to win recognition as refugees.
Britain was not the first off the mark in this respect, but is quickly making up for lost time. Anti-asylum seeker legislation was introduced by the Tories in 1993 and 1996. Further anti-refugee legislation was passed under Labour last year, with the worst provisions in it due to kick in on 1 April this year.
Under the new "support" system asylum seekers will receive a take-it-or-leave-it offer of accommodation, which could be anywhere in Britain and only if they can demonstrate that they have no friends or relatives here who could reasonably be expected to accommodate them. The new system will be virtually cash free. Weekly vouchers will be issued to asylum seekers, one of which can be cashed at a post office for £10, the rest to be used in selected shops. The total package amounts to only 70% of Income Support rates.
The new system is being introduced simultaneously with changes in the procedure for applying for asylum. Asylum seekers (who usually do not speak English or have immediate access to a legal representative) are now given just two weeks to complete an asylum questionnaire. Failure to return the questionnaire on time results in automatic refusal.
Appeal rights for rejected asylum seekers are also being dramatically curtailed. Some asylum seekers will have no in-country right of appeal. Others will have just one chance to appeal. And any asylum seeker who applies for Judicial Review will not receive any assistance (money, vouchers or accommodation) while waiting for it to happen.
New Labour's legislation is far worse than anything the Tories put together. New Labour's approach differs from that of the Tories only in its approach to voluntary sector refugee organisations. Whereas the Tories ignored what they had to say, New Labour has incorporated them. Staff were seconded from the British Refugee Council to the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND), for example, to help set up the new system. Refugee organisations are now officially "stakeholders" in the system. Many of them have signed contracts with the IND to run the so-called "Reception Assistant" functions which will place new asylum seekers in the new "support" system.
Hardly surprising, these government financed "stakeholders" have shown themselves singularly incapable of mounting any effective campaigning against the worst piece of anti-asylum legislation ever to hit the statute books in this country.
It falls to the labour movement and the left to take the lead in fighting the poisonous racism which scapegoats asylum seekers for New Labour's pursuit of Tory economic and social policies. And any section of the labour movement which fails to fight that poison will be consumed by it.
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