Our land of the free?

Thousands of asylum seekers reach Britain each
year fleeing hatred, but what is waiting for them often turns out
to be just more xenophobia, says Alison Taylor.

The market forces that so enthral politicians
also rule the huge and immensely profitable trade in human
desperation. Under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, the UK
government hands out fines of £2,000 for each asylum seeker
caught on trucks, trains, ships, or aircraft entering the

Cross-channel freight operator English, Welsh
and Scottish Railway is challenging fines that could reach £1
million by the end of the year and force the closure of its foreign
arm with the loss of 2,000 jobs.

Eurotunnel, covered by international treaties,
has so far escaped sanction, but fiscal threats are now being
brandished to persuade the service to nail down asylum seekers on
the far side of the Channel.

The issue of asylum seekers figured high on
news agendas in August, with headlines aplenty about Sangatte, the
Red Cross camp in France which has turned into the symbol of all
that’s wrong with European policy.

A human tide of the dispossessed and the
desperate seems to be sweeping across Europe’s well-worn refugee
routes under the noses of the authorities, enriching the
traffickers. The mass finally reaches Sangatte to clamour at the
gates of Fortress Britain – the lucky ones, that is. Countless
others die or are killed en route. The Italians no longer intercept
the refugee boats at sea. Too often, they provoke the traffickers
into jettisoning their cargo or drop babies into the boat’s

Reliable figures for those fleeing oppression,
torture, civil war, starvation and poverty are hard to come by as
so many simply disappear. Perhaps six million people have left
Afghanistan since the Taliban came to power. Hundreds of thousands
have fled the Balkans, Iraq and war-torn African countries. These
people part with everything they own. Thousands endure terror,
hardship and danger to reach Britain, the El Dorado where human
rights are respected and people live free from fear or want.

It is painful to imagine the death of hope
they must experience coming face-to-face with the reality of
internment camps, high-security prisons, legal processes designed
for deterrence, and the voucher system described by the Transport
and General Workers’ Union as “crude and cruel”.

Conditions in Australia, one of Britain’s ex
colonies, are a little better, although that country is, unlike
Britain, signed up to the UN Resettlement Scheme. Nonetheless, the
plight of those aboard the Norwegian cargo vessel Tampa put
Australian policy and attitudes under the spotlight and highlighted
just how developed nations view asylum seekers. Within days the
Tampa’s cargo was redefined as a threat warranting military

Australian immigration minister Philip Ruddock
told BBC’s Newsnight on 30 August that “the
people-smuggling phenomena does not always involve refugees but
people travelling on false identities”.

Panos Moumtzis, UN high commissioner for
refugees, commented on a “growing xenophobia” in the West (in which
he included Australia), where nations erect “higher and higher
walls” around themselves.

A major recession is thought to be imminent in
the US and is, through the domino effect, menacing the world
economy. In one respect, people seeking asylum bear the brunt of a
nation’s fears for its economic and social stability; stateless
people are thrown off the ladder of humanity first, irrespective of
what they can offer a country.

Racism is the other factor. Britain is perhaps
inevitably xenophobic by virtue of geography, but its growing
racism is not confined to neo-fascist extremism. Devolution for
Wales has proved akin to “Balkanisation”, auguring bloody, internal
collapse. Welsh hardliners, determined to settle ancient scores,
have all but declared war on England for destroying language and
cultural heritage. John Elfed Jones, the chairperson of the
advisory group which set up the Welsh assembly, compared the
movement of English-speaking incomers with the spread of
foot-and-mouth disease.

East of Offa’s Dyke, this may seem just a
storm in a quaint teacup, but the politicians have lost control and
all wars have small beginnings. Patients at the local hospital must
now wear wristbands coloured according to their language, a way of
differentiating between people with unpleasant undertones.

Ultimately, the UN’s Moumtzis believes the
worldwide refugee crisis needs political solutions in the countries
of origin. Until then, the right to asylum must be respected,
particularly by the West.

Current UK policies are draconian and
ineffectual. For every asylum seeker accepted, almost four are
rejected, but few are actually deported. Add to this the thousands
entering the country unseen and somewhere in Britain is a ghost
town perhaps the size of Brighton, populated by those without an
official existence, who provide slave labour for the black economy
and who have no defence against the worst Britain has to offer in
terms of resentment, bigotry and exploitation.

Alison Taylor is a novelist and winner
of the 1996 Community Care Readers’ Award.

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