Comfortable, Mr Blair?

UK Asylum Law and Policy

May 28, 2004

Asylum law looms large on the political agenda, as made clear in a recent speech by Tony Blair in which he advocated "controlled migration" and compulsory national identity cards while suggesting that the United Nations Convention on Refugees (1951) was "showing its age". Asylum law is highly politicised, frequently an obsession of the press and subject to wide discretionary powers of the home secretary. The asylum-seeker has become a new pawn in the debate about race, migration and identity; and universities have a responsibility to engage with it.

This excellent book argues that UK asylum law although committed "in principle to justice and humanness risks being compromised in practice by a growing element of arbitrariness and restriction". It offers students in law and political science at undergraduate and graduate levels the best introduction to asylum law available.

The book provides a rich history of asylum, contextualising legal doctrine to make it explicable and dynamic. The first chapter, on the construction of the "asylum-seeker", sets the tone. Legal engagement with asylum in the context of nationality and immigration has a long history. The author plots the emergence of the concept of "alienage" in Calvin's case in 1608 when Chief Justice Cook outlined the doctrine that divided human beings into subjects or aliens, and aliens were further categorised as either temporary or permanent. This case encoded some five centuries of the English law's attempts to deal with nationality.

Some of this history will make uncomfortable reading for those such as Blair who believe that tolerance is an essential part of the British character.

For example, in the 12th century, Jews were forced to wear a badge of identity, were banned from some towns and had to pay a special poll tax.

Under Edward I, they were driven out of the country altogether in 1290.

When they were eventually re-admitted, they remained in a problematic category, suspended somewhere between alien and subject.

The concept of asylum as it would be understood in modern law does not appear until an act of 1798 that provided for "refuge and asylum" on the grounds of "humanity and justice" granted to a person "flying (sic) from the oppression and tyranny". Interestingly, however, the term refugee derives from the situation of the Huguenots.

The story of asylum is then told through the development of law in the British, international and European Union contexts. The author leaves us in no doubt that debates about immigration and asylum repeat themselves as Jews, Huguenots, French, Irish, East Africans, Asians, Arabs, Eastern Europeans, Somalis, Tamils and Kurds are all presented at various times as threats to the British way of life. The aftermath of September 11 2001 is only the latest twist in this story of fear of the alien, as the terrorist makes an appearance in the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act (2001), giving yet more powers to the home secretary to deport those applying for asylum.

UK Asylum Law and Policy is a model legal textbook. It is scholarly and practical; law is presented as rules, doctrines and institutions produced and shaped by society. It demonstrates that legal doctrine is more comprehensible when related to historical political and cultural factors.

Political manipulation of fear of the other has led to increasing restrictions on asylum-seekers, yet, as the author suggests, this degrades human-rights law for all. That alone makes this book essential reading.

John Strawson teaches in the School of Law, East London University.

UK Asylum Law and Policy: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. First edition

Author - Dallal Stevens
Publisher - Thomson, Sweet and Maxwell
Pages - 466
Price - £32.95
ISBN - 0 421 76350 7

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