Poisoned chalice

As long as the debate over asylum seekers is in thrall to the
reactionary hysteria of the tabloids there can be little chance of
a progressive review of policy, says Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.

David Blunkett will soon miss the Department for Education. The
Home Office is a poisoned chalice where all failures and defects
show up with an alarming clarity because so much of what is dealt
with there is big news for the media and opposition

Asylum is among the biggest of these and whichever way one
chooses to look at it, whether it is entry, human rights, planned
settlement, or deportation, UK asylum policies are a mess and
getting worse by the minute. This is because all regulations and
procedures have been produced in order to placate tabloid papers or
conservative opinion instead of the usual dispassionate policy
making which makes for effective governance.

In addition public opinion is relentlessly manipulated. Vouchers
which dehumanise asylum seekers, forced dispersal schemes,
imprisonment and incarceration are all justified through a
hysterical demonisation of “bogus” asylum seekers. These policies
affect the voiceless who are not in a position to lobby or
challenge and change proposals.

The Refugee Council and a handful of voluntary groups are
practically powerless in the face of a government determined to
show that New Labour can be as hard as the Conservatives on

Six months ago, asylum support services were in a state of near
collapse. Councils had already overspent trying to help those
seeking help. Asylum seekers were not applying for accommodation in
dispersal areas and were going back to London or other places where
they had friends or contacts from their own countries. Globally it
is the poorest countries of the world which harbour most of the
refugees of this volatile world. Here the same pattern can be seen
in Hackney, Haringey and other poor boroughs where most asylum
seekers are ending up.

We have no properly structured, short, medium and long-term
asylum or refugee strategies. Most local authorities looking after
dispersed asylum seekers are finding it impossibly hard. A lack of
resources, training and knowledge are proving to be massive
obstacles especially as attitudes to asylum seekers are getting

In a Readers Digest investigation of the subject, most
indigenous Britons overestimated by 150 per cent the financial aid
given to asylum seekers and 80 per cent said that the asylum
seekers came here because Britain was a “soft touch”.

Imagine, then, a small area – say in Kent (where attitudes are
generally hostile) – where hundreds of unaccompanied asylum
children have arrived. They have to be housed within care homes or
with foster families. They have to be educated, given psychological
help – they may have seen unspeakable horrors and may never see
their families again.

The locals fear and loathe asylum seekers; the local newspapers
whip up prejudice. Some doctors refuse to take on asylum seekers
because they are, according to the BMA, seen as “uneconomic
patients”. And the money provided for asylum seekers by central
government is insufficient for these challenges. Social workers and
teachers are working under enough stress already and these are
additional demands that must feel intolerable. I wonder how many of
them begin to harbour resentment against the newcomers – after all
they too are members of society and as likely to be influenced by
the media and politicians – especially when their workload gets
ever heavier.

The situation could be transformed if a more radical approach
was taken by the newly appointed home office minister, Jeff Rooker,
in charge of this emotive area. The official cost of supporting
asylum seekers and processing their applications in the UK was
£1 billion last year which is a lot of money. If asylum
seekers were given the right to find temporary work (which they are
currently not allowed to do), this bill could be reduced greatly as
would the indignity of living with handouts and vouchers which many
now no longer use because it helps identify them.

Besides, as the Jewish Council for Racial Equality and others
have pointed out, many asylum seekers have skills, qualifications
and training which are much needed in the public and private
sectors. The money saved could then be used to provide better
social services and education to the arrivals.

It won’t happen of course because national politicians don’t
want asylum seekers to get too comfortable, or too used to the idea
that they too have rights. Keeping them dependent and frightened
works better politically. And it shows the human debris around the
world that there is no room for them at this inn.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a journalist and

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.