Out of the frying pan

The build-up to military action against Iraq and arrests in
furtherance of the so-called war on terrorism seem destined to whip
up fear and provoke – or reinforce – urges to pull up the
drawbridge and hide under the duvet.

The current febrile atmosphere seems unlikely to be conducive to
rational debate on the appropriate treatment of asylum seekers and
refugees. Even at the best of times this subject is prone to lurid
headlines, sweeping generalisations and expressions of racism in
various guises. Fears about being a “soft touch” for exploiters and
the consequent impact on public resources risk being compounded
with fears for public safety. The substance of both may be highly
questionable. Firm evidence is not always heeded, or even sought,
in debates fuelled by passions, constrained by sensitivities and
hence vulnerable to political spin.

Are asylum seekers desperately fleeing for their lives? Are they
criminals and terrorists? Are they just job seekers getting in a
plane/boat/back of a lorry (as opposed to on their bikes)? Is the
aim to welcome and protect them, deter them or attract them in
order to plug skills gaps? Depending on the aim, the policy
response should differ. Yet, whatever the disagreements, it might
be possible to reach consensus around the proposition that the
system for processing applications has for years achieved none of
them. It remains to be seen whether changes introduced by the
Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 will fare any

Perhaps first it would be helpful to clarify just what the aim
should be. In an extraordinarily polarised debate, asylum seekers
risk finding themselves cast collectively, either as extremely
deserving or as extremely undeserving. Yet individuals may be
either or neither. The challenge is to develop a means to identify
speedily who is who, while also protecting civil liberties. We need
a system that is capable of differing responses, following
accurate, consistent and transparent assessment. It is also
important that the process of application should not be a deterrent
to exercising what is a human right to claim asylum. No easy

It is rarely easy to balance the need for accurate information with
the invasion of privacy that might be required to obtain it. In the
case of asylum seekers and refugees, there is likely to be little
to go on. Compounded by fears for public safety, there will be even
stronger imperatives towards invading privacy or reducing civil
liberties. This is a genuine dilemma. It takes time to amass
accurate information. Technological advances, such as cross-border
fingerprint databases, “smart” identity cards and surveillance
devices, may speed things up and provide a firmer basis for
decision-making, but threaten an encroachment on civil liberties.
But so too does keeping people segregated from mainstream society
for at least six months. If we accept that accurate judgements have
to be made, perhaps it becomes a choice about which civil liberties
should be foregone.

The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, already the
subject of judicial review, proposes a highly improbable indicator
of need. Unless people declare their intention to seek asylum when
they enter the country (or as soon as “reasonably” practicable,
whatever that means) they will be deemed unworthy of

The implications of this change are devastatingly serious. Failure
to comply will result in ineligibility for assistance from the
National Asylum Support Service. Destitution may follow.

Surely, we do not want people fleeing inhumane treatment in their
own country to be subjected to more of it here. To knowingly
consign someone to extreme poverty is inhumane. Perhaps the
unvoiced expectation is that councils and the voluntary sector will
step in to pick up the pieces. Even if this were appropriate (and
it isn’t) they may not have the capacity to do so.

There are genuine difficulties in devising a system that respects
civil liberties, accurately and speedily assesses people with a
variety of motives and circumstances in the absence of firm
evidence, and responds in different ways. To do so in a climate of
fear and suspicion, and with the added imperative of Blair’s recent
announcement of targets to cut numbers, increases the challenge.
Clearly, through requiring people to prove their desperation, we
need to make sure we do not add to it. The introduction of
efficiency criteria for applicants (rather than administrators!) is
emphatically not the answer. The quest for reliable, unintrusive,
indicators continues.

Sally Witcher is a freelance consultant and researcher.
She was formerly director of the Child Poverty Action

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