Britain’s tabloid media has become obsessed with ‘scrounging’ asylum seekers, out of control immigration, foreign ‘plagues’ and Muslim terrorists. The emerging politics of hate, fear and hysteria is set to dominate Britain in 2003.
Following the anti-terrorist raids in Wood Green, north London, and the death of Detective Constable Stephen Oake during an anti-terrorist raid in Manchester, in early January, the nation’s newspapers launched an unprecedented campaign against asylum seekers, encouraged by the supposed ‘link’ between terrorism and asylum. Suddenly, these two emotionally charged topics, hitherto kept mainly separate, have been fused into a morass of fear and insecurity.
Newspaper articles throughout January solidified the link, leading most people in Britain to believe that the asylum system provides an ‘open door’ for terrorists to enter Britain. Clamping down on asylum seekers is thus no longer just about preventing ‘abuse’ by ‘scroungers’ but a matter of national security. Resentment has turned to fear and anger. And the media are cleverly manipulating this fear to legitimise ambitious changes to Britain’s asylum, immigration and human rights policy.
In fact, only a tiny handful of the hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers in Britain have been charged under the anti-terror laws. And if, as has been widely proposed, all asylum seekers were detained for security checks, then it would, one imagines, not be beyond the resources of Al Qaeda to arrange false travel documents so that a terrorist could enter Britain along with the 90 million other foreign visitors who come each year. Yet the people are demanding some kind of reassurance. They are being sampled, surveyed and focus-grouped. They are encouraged to write in, sign petitions, ‘get angry’, as the Sun told its readers. The circle is completed as the people tell the newspapers exactly what the newspapers told them. They fear that their government has lost control of its borders and all sorts of dangers – terror, disease, immigration – are being allowed to pass unchecked. ‘The people agree with us,’ proclaim the media.
And the government has to respond. A bold proposal is required. Blair promises to halve the number of asylum claims by the autumn – an impossible promise, especially if he also intends to go to war against Iraq. But, if that fails, Britain shall withdraw from its international human rights commitments, as long recommended by the Mail and the rest of the right-wing press. It is easier to demonise a minority to give the people some sense of security, no matter how false and fleeting, than change foreign policies that are the causes of terrorism and refugee flight in the first place.
The attack on human rights
The anger generated by the asylum issue has now been turned, in the hands of the Mail and its cohorts, into a stick with which to beat Britain’s human rights laws. In the Sun, Richard Littlejohn wrote, on 20 February 2003, that the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) is ‘one of the most wicked pieces of legislation ever brought into British law… little more than a charter for terrorists, gangsters, illegal immigrants, drugs dealers’.
Similarly, a pamphlet by Myles Harris, published in January by the right-wing think-tank Civitas, entitled Tomorrow Is Another Country, and extracted in the Mail on 21 January 2003, argues that Britain should cease its membership of the ECHR. Harris’ theme is that Britain’s doors are open by law to all who seek entry chanting the mantra of human rights. His message is that we are being overrun by foreign frauds, cheats and liars, and there is nothing we can do about it while the Human Rights Act remains in force. Therefore it must be repealed.
But while the Mail describes Harris as a man who has been ‘researching the asylum crisis’, in fact, he has sat in on a few asylum appeal hearings and his report is a hodgepodge of factual and legal error, prejudice, assumption and partiality. He tells his readers that ‘only 9 per cent of men and 13 per cent of women are granted asylum; the rest present cases which are concocted or have only the vaguest approximation to the truth’. Yet, any fair reading of Home Office statistics shows that at least 42 per cent of claims are valid, when successful appeals and exceptional leave to remain are included. He tells his readers that ‘the Human Rights Act has the effect of surrendering the right to decide who can and who can’t enter the UK’. Yet, as he ought to know, the European Court of Human Rights recognises the sovereign right of states to control their borders. He even tells his readers that ‘by 2050, whites will be in the minority in London and, by 2100, in the entire country’, though projections of that kind wrongly assume that descendants of immigrants will have as many children as immigrants do.
The funniest part of the Harris polemic is where he describes how we can avoid employing immigrant labour. We need, he says, to raise the retirement age to 70, curb social security and work longer hours. Strange how those proposals weren’t headlined.
Nevertheless, the panic button had been pressed by the Mail and the Sun and so Tony Blair responded. Within a week, Blair was promising to withdraw from article 3 of the ECHR if the number of asylum claims was not halved by the autumn.
This was despite the fact that Britain has already suspended Article 5 of the ECHR, following the introduction of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act (2001). Article 5 prevents detention without trial. But the government has argued that it needed to have this power because there might be some people in the UK who were suspected terrorists but for whom there was insufficient evidence to prosecute under earlier anti-terrorist laws, and who could not be deported either, because of article 3 of the ECHR – they might face the death penalty or torture in their home country.
A year later and it seems dropping article 5 was not enough and article 3 has to go too. By proposing to withdraw from Britain’s commitment not to deport someone who would face a risk of torture or death in their home country, Blair has finally abandoned any pretence of wanting to protect genuine refugees. But the ECHR does not allow governments any opt-out from article 3 as it is considered a fundamental right. Britain would therefore have to withdraw from the entire convention and then seek to re-sign but with newly added opt-out clauses. On asylum, it seems that the government follows a path of appeasing the papers first, and working out the legalities later.
It has long been a stock in trade of racists to link alien groups to the spread of disease. And, in recent months, the tabloid newspapers have revived this ignoble tradition, finding that epidemics are not only another crisis to blame on immigrants, but can also serve as an appropriately xenophobic metaphor for immigration itself. Diseases, such as tuberculosis (TB) and HIV, are described as spreading unchecked from the Third World, becoming a drain on the NHS, while a ‘soft touch’ government chooses to ignore the problem. An article in the Daily Mail of 5 December 2002 is typical. Under the headline ‘TB epidemic alert’, it claimed that the UK has a worse TB problem than the Third World, and that one in six of immigrants are carriers.
Then, on 26 January 2003, an article by Anthony Browne (the Times‘ environment editor and also author of a pamphlet entitled Do We Need Mass Immigration?, published by Civitas) appeared in the Mail on Sunday, entitled ‘Madness of Blair’s imported plagues’. In the midst of the national mood of panic about terrorism, Browne argued that: ‘We live in fear of foreigners bringing death to our land… But… it is not by allowing in terrorists that the Government’s policy of mass immigration, especially from the Third World, will claim most lives. It is through letting in too many germs.’ A longer version of the article appeared in the Spectator that week. And the following day, Trevor Kavanagh wrote in the Sun that immigrants had brought ‘alarming levels of infectious TB, Hepatitis B [and] incurable Aids’ to Britain.
All these articles demanded that immigrants be tested on coming to Britain and that if they carry a contagious disease they should be prevented from entering. The government soon decided that it needed to be seen to be doing something. So on 13 February, the Times quoted unnamed government sources saying that compulsory health screening of immigrants was being considered, although it was not clear if those tested positive would be denied entry, as the tabloids had demanded.
But what is the evidence that migration is bringing an epidemic of TB to Britain? Most experts believe poverty is the major cause for the rise of TB in the UK since the mid-1980s. The greater incidence of TB among immigrant communities reflects, therefore, the greater poverty that these groups suffer here.
The Mail‘s claim that the rate of TB in Britain is worse than in some Third World countries depends on comparing the rate in one of Britain’s poorest areas – Brent – with the average level for a country such as Brazil, which contains extremes of wealth and poverty. And the statistic that one in six new immigrants is infected, conceals the fact that the vast majority of these people contracted the disease after they arrived in Britain when they were forced to live in poor housing with insufficient funds to have a proper diet.
A report published by the Public Health Laboratory Service last year, which looked at the incidence of TB among South Asians in West Yorkshire, found that deprivation – such as poor heating, diet, etc. – weakened the immune system and made lung diseases, such as TB, more likely. This analysis was echoed by a King’s Fund report, published in December 2000, which found that the majority of asylum seekers arrived in Britain in good health, but some became ill once here, because of overcrowding or unsanitary conditions. Further evidence comes from a scheme that has been operating since last July, in which around 5000 asylum seekers in Kent have been tested for various infectious diseases. Not one proved positive for any infectious disease; many, though, were found to have suffered gunshot wounds and injuries from torture.
A drain on the NHS?
In recent years, the NHS has found January one of its most difficult months, as the burden of winter illnesses hits overburdened GPs. Normally, the newspapers blame the government for inadequate funding of the NHS, as reports come in of elderly women denied treatment. But this year, asylum seekers have become scapegoats for the shortage of doctors.
On 19 January, the front page of the Mail on Sunday had the headline ‘Widow, 88 Told By GP: Make Way For Asylum Seekers’. Lydia Perry, of Stoke, had been taken off her GP’s books, it was claimed, because of the burden of asylum seekers. Dr Paul Golik, secretary of the North Staffordshire local medical committee, was quoted as saying that GPs in the area were being forced to accommodate up to 200 asylum seekers each month, causing a major shortage of doctors.
In Derby, there was local anger after Central Derby Primary Care Trust announced the opening of a practice specifically for asylum seekers. Patients had previously been told that the new practice would be used for general practice as well as asylum seekers’ needs. This proved not to be the case and 1,900 patients who, had earlier seen another surgery closed, were forced to move to different surgeries around the city. Dr Peter Moss, a senior practitioner in the area, told the Derby Evening Telegraph that ‘in essence I am almost practising veterinary medicine when dealing with asylum seekers’.
Yet, in both these cases, asylum seekers are just a tiny percentage of the numbers of patients that doctors have to deal with. And the shortage of GPs far outweighs the added ‘burden’ that asylum seekers bring. The surgery at which Dr Peter Moss works struggles to provide for its 15,000 patients, but only one per cent of them are asylum seekers. And, of course, to only see immigrants as a ‘drain’ on resources ignores the fact that the NHS’s shortage of doctors could be eased by recruiting some of the estimated 770 qualified doctors who have come to Britain as refugees. The British Medical Association estimates that it costs £250,000 to train a doctor from scratch, whereas retraining a foreign doctor costs £5,000.
A couple of days after the Mail on Sunday front page, Shadow Health Secretary Dr Liam Fox wrote to all Primary Care Trusts and Hospital Trusts in the UK, suggesting that British citizens were being denied access to treatment on the NHS because of ‘preferential access’ given to asylum seekers. He also claimed that the NHS was becoming a ‘health tourism destination’ – the idea being that immigrants select Britain as a destination in order to milk the NHS for free treatment. This is an argument that has found increasing favour on the pages of the Mail et al. in recent months. It has also received backing from Civitas. In Tomorrow Is Another Country (see above), ‘bogus’ asylum seekers are portrayed as melting into their communities, living without documentation, but, somehow, miraculously benefiting from free health care.
The attempt to blame immigrants for the NHS crisis has also led to the formation of a new campaign group. HealthWatch UK, a group under investigation by the Charity Commission, was set up last year to campaign against ‘unentitled’ foreigners gaining access to the NHS. It has run a series of newspaper advertisements presenting its arguments, although, ironically, the Daily Mail refused to print them because they were considered too political. The source of the group’s funding has not been disclosed but it appears to have won the support of some doctors.
What these scare stories ignore is that, since the 1980s, doctors and hospitals have been forced to question new patients about their immigration status, to prevent non-emergency hospital treatment being given to ‘illegals’. Doctors have thus been given the added burden of having to become immigration police and asylum seekers have been subjected to a second-class health service. Numerous reports have documented the cruelty that has been meted out by the system to asylum seekers. In 2000, for example, the Audit Commission described the case of a pregnant asylum seeking woman who went to see her GP for pre-natal care, but had her pregnancy terminated because an interpreter was not available and so the doctor was left to ‘guess’ what the patient was asking for. And, last year, the High Court heard the case of an Ethiopian woman who was denied tokens for formula milk for her baby girl, even though being HIV positive means she cannot breastfeed.
The fact is that asylum seekers are being scapegoated for the under-funding of the NHS because they are an easy target.