Blair on asylum: myth vs. reality

Blair on asylum: myth vs. reality


Written by: Arun Kundnani

In an article in today’s Times newspaper, Tony Blair sets out his plans for a massive increase in deportations of asylum seekers. Read the article paragraph by paragraph and the distortions and double-think on which it is based become clear.

  • The title of the article: ‘Three steps we will take for a fairer asylum system’. Fairer to whom? Fairness, it appears, refers here, not to asylum seekers themselves, for whom the system may be making life-and-death decisions, but to the ‘general public’ whose confidence in the system has been eroded by constant tabloid anti-asylum stories.
  • The opening sentence: ‘Out on the doorstep, asylum remains a major concern.’ The government is claiming it has to do something to crack down on asylum seekers because of public opinion. But the government has been getting tough on asylum seekers for seven years in response to ‘public concern’ – with no sign of ‘public concern’ diminishing. And is the government not responsible for creating public opinion precisely through its ‘get tough’ rhetoric of the last seven years?
  • The next paragraph: ‘Forty years ago the number of claims was small and the overwhelming majority were genuine. Now, the dramatic increase of asylum-seekers to all EU countries includes large numbers of economic migrants who take advantage of easier travel.’ It is not ‘easier travel’ that causes more people to flee but the worsening humanitarian situation in many parts of the world. At the same time, the refusal rate has soared in response to ‘public concern’ about the numbers coming. Having branded these people as ‘economic migrants’, Blair ignores all other considerations and goes on to discuss the ways in which asylum seekers can be tackled as essentially a criminal problem rather than a matter of human rights.
  • ‘As a result of new laws and other action, claims have fallen 70 per cent since their peak in 2002 – a reduction twice that achieved in the rest of Europe. Claims are now at the level of 1997 and we must get them down farther.’ But how was this reduction achieved? In part, the number of asylum seekers at any time reflects the human rights situations in the countries they come from at those times. The recent fall in asylum claims to the UK therefore reflects a general reduction across the Western world. But the ‘new laws and other action’, such as withdrawing practically all support from asylum seekers who do not submit their claim as soon as they arrive in the country, has also resulted in a reduction in claims. For many asylum seekers, it is simply not worth their while to make a claim now, whatever the individual merits of their case. And behind the never-ending drive to reduce the number of claims lies the prejudice that almost all are unfounded. The result is thousands of people in genuine need being thrown into destitution and untold hardship.
  • Blair goes on: ‘there remain genuine concerns about… the removal of those whose claims have been turned down. Raising such concerns is neither extremist nor racist. Indeed, ignoring abuse plays into the hands of extremists.’ This is an odd argument. What Blair is saying, in effect, is that his attacks on asylum seekers are preferable to those of ‘real racists’ whose racism will be more extreme in form. The way to fight crude racism is through polite racism.
  • ‘Building on our success in reducing applications, we now want a step change in the number of failed applicants who leave this country. By the end of the next year, we want the monthly rate of removals to exceed the number of unfounded applications so that we start making increasing inroads into the backlog.’ What will this mean in practice? At present, each month around 3,000 asylum seekers are rejected and 1,100 deported. If the number of asylum claims continues at its present rate, then the target announced today implies there will be over 3,000 deportations a month by the end of next year: an almost threefold increase. Of course, it is possible that the number of asylum claims increases again – in which case the target would imply an even higher increase in deportations.
  • Blair goes on to describe the measures needed to meet this target: ‘we will be taking firm action to clamp down on those who deliberately conceal their identity… So from next week it will be an offence, punishable by up to two years in prison, to arrive in the UK without documents or to refuse to co-operate with redocumentation by your embassy during the removal process.’ But almost the only way that asylum seekers have of entering Britain is using false documents – as there are visa restrictions on all countries from where asylum seekers come and no chance of their obtaining a visa. It is because of this problem that the Geneva Convention explicitly recognises the need not to penalise asylum seekers for using false documents, as the new criminal offence seeks to do. In addition, forcing asylum seekers to co-operate with the embassy of the government they have fled from – as the new Act requires – is highly dangerous, as it notifies foreign governments of exactly who has claimed asylum here and could lead to retaliation against the asylum seeker’s relatives in that country.
  • Another measure: ‘over the next seven months we will be bringing on stream almost 1,000 extra immigration detention spaces to take the total to 2,750, triple the 1997 figure. The first 326 of those places were opened yesterday at the new removals centre at Colnbrook.’ The new detention centre at Colnbrook is, in fact, modelled on a category B prison with each cell designed to hold two detainees sharing a toilet without a proper door. But to detain people who have been convicted of no offence in prison-like conditions only leads to suicide, protest and rebellion. That has been the legacy of previous expansions of the detention-estate at Campsfield, Yarl’s Wood and Harmondsworth.
  • And finally: ‘we will be redoubling diplomatic efforts to persuade those countries which generate the highest numbers of unfounded applicants to speed up redocumentation procedures so that we can remove people as rapidly as possible.’ This refers to the ongoing efforts by Blair’s government to use Britain’s wealth to put pressure on poorer countries to agree to accept returned asylum seekers. The attempt to directly link aid to asylum policies contravenes the new International Development Act. But Blair sees a precedent in the conditions that have been written into trade agreements with non-EU countries that require help with combating terrorism. ‘You flex your economic muscle to tap into a particular country that is causing you problems’, a Foreign Office official was quoted in the Financial Times (21 May 2002). ‘We already do it for terrorism; why not for immigration?’
  • ‘an asylum system, if it is to retain the full confidence of the public, must be seen as fair and balanced. And that means ensuring that asylum decisions make a difference to whether people stay in this country.’ By now it is obvious that the words ‘fair and balanced’ are not being used in a way that is fair and balanced. They refer to the need to satisfy ‘the public’ that asylum seekers are being deported in sufficient numbers. But the system is so biased against asylum seekers that people whose lives are in genuine danger are already being deported. And as the numbers of deportations increase, the death toll – of those killed after being deported, those committing suicide to avoid deportation, those killed in racist attacks resulting from a state-sponsored atmosphere of hostility – will increase too.

Related links

Barbed Wire Britain

National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

One thought on “Blair on asylum: myth vs. reality

  1. mr blair is not strong enough on the asylum issue,huge numbers of the general public ,do not want theses foreign hordes invadeing our country,they come here with there bogus storys of hardship in there homelands,yet if it is so bad ,why do most appear to be young men,who if they are telling the truth must be cowards as they have left there mothers,wifes and children to suffer alone,i know for certain if my family was in danger,i would not abandon them!

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