The latest Immigration and Asylum Bill is the fifth piece of such legislation in the last 11 years. Each has been more repressive than the last, with the latest including measures such as electronic tagging and the removal of children from failed asylum seeker parents if the latter refuse to return to their countries of origin. It is disheartening that the left's response to the government's plans has been so muted. If ever there was a repressed and marginalised minority asylum seekers are it. They are the bottom of the pile. In the most basic terms asylum seekers, especially failed ones, are the poorest people in society.
We have allowed the government, particularly home secretary David Blunkett (though we can't be sure how much Tony Blair is backing him on this issue), to make the running in terms of policy on immigration and asylum seekers - not only in the UK, but in Europe as well. There has been a good deal of protest from the liberal press, pressure groups and the left that has secured some successes, the most notable being the withdrawal of the food-vouchers scheme. But nobody seems to be making much effort to formulate a realistic alternative that might unite this opposition and mobilise the mass of the people against government asylum policy.
The truth is that many of us working with refugee organisations are so immersed in the desperate daily problems facing asylum seekers that we have had little time to stand back and work on a comprehensive alternative. Any such programme must involve countering the demonisation of asylum seekers in the media. This demonisation conflicts directly with the government's stated aim of community cohesion. Red Pepper wants to use its pages to stimulate an urgent debate to produce such a programme. First we need to be clear about what we are up against.
The main thrust of government policy is to reduce the number of asylum seekers coming to the UK. This is to be achieved by making it very difficult for people to get into the country and by making the period in which people must wait for decisions on asylum applications as unpleasant as possible. Superficially, the policy seems to have worked. The number of people claiming asylum has halved over the past six months.
The likelihood is, however, that just as many people are entering the country as before but that 50 per cent of them are not bothering to claim asylum. There is only anecdotal evidence of this, but if it is the case then the government may have simply compounded the burden on refugee communities supporting relatives and friends, and increased the numbers of super-exploited workers paid below the minimum wage.
On the Continent the focus is on border controls in the EU's perimeter countries. EU member states have agreed to share information so as to prevent people from claiming asylum in more than one EU country, and to allow the UK to return asylum seekers to other European countries that they may have passed through previously. Discussions are continuing about harmonising - effectively to the lowest level - support for asylum seekers.
The stated aims of the British government are four-fold: asylum seekers should spend the minimum time in the UK before a decision is made about their claims; assistance should be at a sub-Income Support level, and asylum seekers should have a minimum level of rights compared with UK citizens; asylum seekers should be closely tracked and monitored while in the UK; and failed applicants should leave the country immediately following a negative decision.
The UK's already biased and unfair process of making decisions on asylum applications has been made much worse. There is now radically reduced access to competent legal services. Financial and material support has been reduced to the extent that people cannot always afford food. The final brutality is that the government has removed access to support for people facing deportation; the idea is to force failed asylum seekers to return home 'voluntarily'. These measures have reinforced the media frenzy against asylum seekers that has fuelled the kind of fears and xenophobia that drive people towards the BNP. Polls show that over 30 per cent of the British public believes the issue of asylum seekers is their number-one concern.
What alternative policies are currently under debate? The mainstream liberal line is that we just need to make existing agreements work properly: there is nothing wrong with the UN's 1951 Refugee Convention, the problem is to do with the way the convention is exercised; there should be a fair immigration system, in which people's claims are carefully but quickly considered and they are given permission to stay in the UK or are returned to their countries of origin; while they remain in the UK, asylum seekers should be supported decently by the state.
This view is based on the suspect belief that it is right to distinguish those who have been persecuted from migrants who may be moving because they have no possibilities of earning a living, they have been displaced or they have suffered in any number of other ways. But suffering feels much the same whether it is caused by a repressive regime or grinding poverty.
More recently the mainstream line has embraced the concept of managed migration. This acknowledges the highly problematic relationship between developed and developing nations. It legitimises the present situation of effectively setting quotas by which the state decides how many new economic and other migrants it is prepared to let into the country. However, it is entirely unclear on what basis decisions are made about quotas. And the principle of managed migration is based on the questionable assumption that the UK is really able to control its borders.
The radical alternative, and the one that many of us feel in our hearts is the right one, is the idea of 'no borders': people should be free to go wherever they please. The nation state is a recently created and dangerous racist fallacy that should be opposed. This solution takes the moral high ground, but to make it a feasible policy we need to go on to debate the steps that must be taken to get there. It is essential that asylum seekers themselves should participate in that debate.
Any such debate must:
-# put the latest wave of migration into its proper historical context by highlighting the importance of immigration to the cultural and economic history of the UK;
-# address the reasons why people migrate, including the relationships between developed and developing countries;
-# take place within the context of a wider European debate about immigration;
-# address the issue of forcible return; this is the most difficult issue for many of us, but if there are to be any kinds of control then it needs to be discussed;
-# recognise the level of public concern about immigration, not just dismiss people because we don't like what they are saying;
-# address the impact of migration on employment rights, particularly with regard to enforcement of the minimum wage and exploitation of illegal workers;
-# deal with the issue of numbers, both to dispel myths and to address real issues including sustainability and regional distribution;
-# address the impact of migration on local services, including health, housing and education; and
-# promote active integration; the state has a responsibility to enable and hasten integration, and must address related issues of citizenship and community cohesion.
This would not be an easy debate. But we have to provide an alternative to government policy, or we will fail the migrants that we want to welcome to the UK. We need to be leading the debate for realisable alternative policies, not just responding to the next wave of repressive legislation. Many asylum seekers still see the UK as a tolerant, multi-racial beacon of democracy. This is something to be proud of but which we are in danger of losing.