Speechless on asylum

Intolerance towards the persecuted is being allowed to flourish
as extreme right-wing opinions increasingly set the agenda and
ministers are too scared to challenge them, says Yasmin

Since coming to power, Tony Blair has made not one stirring
speech to this nation about the reasons why so many people are
displaced around the world. Not one. But in May he did seem
relieved that we had substantially fewer asylum applicants now
before warning refugees and desperate migrants that numbers would
have to go down much further. That will have appeased his
unreliable but much courted media friends on the right for whom one
more asylum seeker – migrant or anybody with a swarthy complexion –
means the death of Britain as they know it.

So, all you people huddled in the back of lorries and
suffocating in sewers as you try to get half a chance of survival,
be warned. Our tough PM will not put up with you turning up here,
bothering us with your sob stories and wounded lives. Stay put and
die because our targets are more important to us than your endless
woes even if we have helped create them.

None of the other big names – Gordon Brown, Patricia Hewitt (an
economic migrant herself), Peter Hain (ditto), Robin Cook, Clare
Short – have ever made such speeches either. Jack Straw did make
stirring interventions on behalf of asylum seekers when he was in
opposition, but once in power he and Blunkett have turned
themselves into neo-conservative bulldogs. They then have the nerve
to tell us that they do this to stop the rise of the BNP which is
only popular because it cleverly uses the mess, unrest and
scapegoating of migrants which has been generated by New Labour and
the Tories. Lib Dems, meanwhile, say as little as possible on this

Now the House of Commons all-party home affairs select committee
has come up with an alarmist report on asylum seekers concluding
that too many of “them” are getting in and “if allowed to continue
unchecked it could overwhelm the capacity of the receiving
countries to cope, leading inevitably to social unrest”. After
seven years in power, responsibility rests with this government
alone for this dangerous chaos.

Joy Gardner, a Jamaican, died in July 1993 after police and
immigration officers manacled and taped her up in front of her
little boy. This most abominable episode was the inevitable result
of a country gone demented over “uncontrolled” immigration.

Today we are in the grip of worse fear-mongering. The Blairite
Institute for Public Policy Research believes this. A new IPPR
report concludes the government has not adequately persuaded and
informed Britons about the causes of migration to the UK. They do
nothing to stop chaos in the countries which produce outflows. They
sell them arms, for example. If they carry on in this way “[they]
will be responsible for allowing a political context to develop in
which the rise of far right parties and public hostility towards
non-white immigrants is seen as acceptable”.

Then there is the media. So revolting and inaccurate is the
coverage in the Mail, Express, London Evening Standard, Sun and
Telegraph that Roy Greenslade, hardened one-time editor of the
Mirror, has just called for the Press Complaints Commission to take
action against editors who systematically lie about migrants and
ferment prejudice.

I do not accept that all British governments since the Thatcher
revolution have to be the inheritors of that diseased legacy. There
is nothing in our collective genes which makes it impossible for
electorates to vote for leaders who suggest that we have
responsibilities to the dispossessed – whether as a result of
violence, fear or deprivation.

The UK, still the fourth richest country in the world, is 34th
in the world in terms of the refugees it supports. Half of those
who arrive can prove they have a legitimate right to stay.

Economic migrants are no different from (except they are poorer
and need more chances) the thousands of Britons moving to Spain,
Italy, South Africa and France or the New Zealanders, white South
Africans and Europeans on the move. What we need is for the public
to better understand the dynamics of migration and the benefit of
having new blood flowing in and out of any nation. Sure there are
many costs and disadvantages, but the net gain is researched and

We should let all asylum seekers and economic migrants work –
which is what they want. Leaders must transform the ugly
anti-immigration attitudes that have developed towards incomers and
MPs need pressure put on them by the millions of decent Britons who
care what happens to refugees. And they should forthwith stop
buying the newspapers which dehumanise migrants.

If we think we are civilised this is the least we can do.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a writer and

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