Desperately seeking asylum

Refugees, Citizenship and Social policy in Europe
April 28, 2000

Asylum policies in the United Kingdom and European Union states form the basis of this collection of essays. Separate chapters explore the politics of asylum administration in Britain and in Germany; the ambiguities in the concept of a "safe country"; a comparison of social security provisions for asylum seekers in the UK, Belgium, Holland and Germany; the emotional and psychological problems of aged exiles, particularly the Poles, the Chileans and the Jews, are assessed with sympathy and much insight. The legal situation of unaccompanied refugee children in Britain is outlined and the policies and practices in four boroughs evaluated, with thoughtful recommendations. For although Britain signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, actual practices often fall short of what we are pledged to do. And one chapter reports on a survey of refugees' perceptions of disadvantage in the UK job market.

John Solomos and Liza Schuster stress the trend of the 18 British acts since 1905 towards increased entry restrictions. At first the acts are concerned with "aliens"; then with "Commonwealth immigrants", then with general immigration appeals, and most recently, with asylum and immigration. In the 1960s, the concern was to exclude non-white Commonwealth immigrants. By the 1990s, it was difficult for whites, too, to become British citizens, unless wealthy, or with skills that would benefit our economy. Solomos and Schuster argue that labour market needs, plus simple racism, explain the shifts. But the restrictions also reflected widely shared concerns among political elites not to allow British society to become dominated by hostility to immigrants. It was, surely, fear of racism, rather than racism, which prompted more controls.

Enoch Powell's overnight popularity in 1968 among some working-class voters because he spoke against non-white immigration was deeply unsettling, to both liberal Conservatives and Labour alike. Increased controls soon followed. The pattern was repeated in Germany, somewhat later, which went from having the most open laws for asylum seekers (the 1949 Basic Law) to being much more restrictive. Carl Levy's essays give a sense of how the 1997 treaty of Amsterdam and arguments about human rights in the EC may act to refine collective policies on asylum and immigration at the margins. He notes the ambiguity and tensions between inclusion and exclusion. While recent trends have been increasingly restrictive, there is the possibility that those seeking asylum, if they avoid immediate deportation, may be given more sensitive treatment while they struggle to stay because the European Union has signed up to legal human rights conventions that are more inclusive than state policies. It is not suggested that many more people will be granted asylum. It is more that while they wait for their applications to be judged, their freedom of action, their financial support and access to the job market may be somewhat better. Many applicants, when they have exhausted all appeals, will then be sent away. Small wonder that some go underground when their cases look like going against them.

Columnists Neal Ascherson and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown remind us that the liberal hope of "one world" is challenged by the policed frontiers of "fortress Europe". In J. K. Galbraith's "culture of contentment" there are tight fiscal limits to state charity. What sorts of chains of connectedness, moral involvement and indirect responsibility do we choose to live by? Long, complex chains, "No man is an island", or arm's-length chains: "We don't have a dog in this fight" (US secretary of state James Baker on staying clear of Yugoslav dissolution)? Who must pay for whose human rights abuses?

In 1997, 95 per cent of UK asylum seekers were resident in London, where they became victims of a tug-of-war between the Labour government and the local councils over who would pay for them. Many were denied benefits and confined in prisons and detention centres. Locking people up because they would like to live here is nasty, and it is also more expensive than letting them work - that is if they can find any. The new Immigration and Asylums Bill gives the home secretary powers to direct asylum seekers to reside in particular areas and to require particular councils to house them while their cases are being heard. If they move away from the designated location, they will not receive further benefits. This is standard practice in Switzerland, but do we wish to be like Switzerland in this respect?

Governments draw lines, make distinctions, allocate resources, define entitlements, tighten entry controls when the electorate feels threatened, then loosen them when more people are more welcoming. Most EU members have become more restrictive in the past 15 years, and since 1989 there has been a lot more conflict on the peripheries of the EU. The Balkan Stability Plan will, it is hoped, allow people to stay at home and prosper, rather than emigrate.

The cartoon on the cover (by David Ashton) shows tower blocks and a road sign: "Dover: definitely not twinned with anywhere in Slovakia". In Austria and Switzerland just recently, anti-foreigner populists are getting strong electoral support; yet one contributor blithely writes: "Thus, easier routes to naturalisation would create enfranchised pressure groups for refugee communities and allow for more vigorous contestation of xenophobia at the hustings." QED! Supposing more naturalised foreigners are followed by more far-right protests, and more racist attacks? Can we optimistically trust the politics of inclusion and exclusion to the ballot box? The authors wish collective attitudes to asylum seekers to be one measure of democracy. Governments need to work much harder to explain to the electorate that our ageing population needs newcomers as future taxpayers.

At a time when the Tory right are regrouping Little Englanders, we need a thoughtful analysis of how to manage our divergent values, and how to respond to the dilemma produced by new people wishing to dwell here, without nationwide support. A recent Home Office study of racial harassment and racial violence noted how on a single estate near London, 34 perpetrators, drawn from both sexes and all age groups, were responsible for 111 racial incidents. Thirty-one of these were "repeat offenders". It is, among other things, the fear of such as yet intractable problems that has shaped restrictive immigration policies, and this book has not chosen to face these issues head-on. Arguably, it should have done.

Peter Loizos is professor of social anthropology, London School of Economics.

Refugees, Citizenship and Social policy in Europe

Editor - Alice Bloch and Carl Levy
ISBN - 0 333 71910 7
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £47.50
Pages - 242

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