Make yourself at home?

Knickers and ready meals – where would we be without Marks &
Spencer? Ironic, then, that in this day of anti-asylum seeker
sentiments, the founder of one of our most popular high street
chains, Michael Marks, was a Russian-born Jewish refugee. Born in
1859, Marks came to England as a young man who could not speak
English. By 1884 he was running a stall at Kirkgate market in Leeds
and in 1894 he formed a partnership with Tom Spencer. The rest, as
they say, is history.

People’s sympathy for asylum seekers is certainly fickle. But there
are consistent trends. It seems that “spontaneous arrivals” receive
a less than enthusiastic reception. Heaven Crawley, migration and
equalities programme director at the Institute for Public Policy
Research (IPPR), says: “It’s down to how the government responds to
and deals with the situation. If you welcome a group and provide
them with the things they need to resettle and provide information
to the public about why they need protection, then the attitude to
that group reflects that.

“But if they arrive spontaneously and the public is told that they
are potentially abusing the system, then people’s response reflects
that to a certain extent.”

While Jewish refugees spontaneously fleeing Nazi Germany in the
second world war were viewed suspiciously, Bosnians arriving here
in the late 1990s weren’t, because they were in a managed
resettlement programme and the information given to the public
legitimised their arrival.

So, how did we get to this state of affairs and what makes the
public accept some asylum seekers but not others? There is a “good
refugee, bad refugee mentality” that is cyclic, says Stephen
Rylance, spokesperson for Refugee Action. He puts it down to two
key factors: the exponential year-on-year growth of asylum
applications, which six years ago were a third of the number today,
and the media.

“Newspapers have latched on to asylum seeker issues as a useful way
of getting more readers. They scapegoat them, and use asylum as a
coded way to talk about race,” says Rylance. Newspapers during the
second world war wrote about Jewish refugees using much the same
language as they do about asylum seekers today, he adds. And then
in April 1968, there was politician Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers
of blood” speech about immigration in which he said: “We must be
mad É as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some
50,000 dependants.”

Rylance believes there has been a change in attitude that started
before September 11, and a change in the political climate. Liz
Fekete, deputy director of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR),
agrees. She believes that today’s situation resembles that after
the second world war, when refugees had no choice but to work
because there wasn’t a welfare system supporting them. The
difference is that, unlike during the war, afterwards refugees were
welcome because the country needed labourers for reconstruction

“Now they are being discouraged from coming here, and when they are
here it’s like 19th century Poor Laws because they are not entitled
to the welfare state, just subsistence,” Fekete says.

“Things are worse now than in any period since the second world war
because of the attack on asylum seekers’ welfare rights and because
of the government’s attempts to get out of their obligations under
the Geneva convention.”

She agrees that pro-asylum seeker feelings are being eroded by
politicians and the media likening them to illegal immigrants. This
increased after September 11, when asylum seekers were equated with
criminality and increasingly with terrorism, says Fekete. It is
ironic, she adds, that most people come to this country because
they are victims of terror themselves.

Britain’s dispersal policy is one explanation for the growing
hostility towards asylum seekers, says a report from the
IRR.1 It says the UK has failed to learn from the
Continent and is repeating the same mistakes: “What we have
experienced in the UK is a complete complacency about the corrosive
effect that xenophobic language and stereotyping have on public

Fekete says: “Dispersal programmes were carried out on the
Continent after politicians repeatedly used anti-asylum seeker
issues as an electoral issue. That climate builds up for a year and
then asylum seekers are dispersed into it.”

Historically, groups of asylum seekers coming to the UK reflect
international trouble spots. And although some of the media would
have us believe that they are here to take advantage of the
benefits system, a recent report from the IPPR says that war,
repression and human rights abuses drive more people to seek asylum
in the UK than poverty.2

During the Kosovo crisis in 1998-9, the largest group of people
seeking asylum in the UK by country were from former Yugoslavia (16
per cent of the total). In 2001, in the war against the Taliban,
the highest number of asylum applications came from nationals of
Afghanistan (13 per cent of applications). It is thought that when
the Taliban asked people to report individuals suspected of
opposing its rule, the numbers of Afghans seeking refuge in Europe
increased. This increased again after September 11 when people fled
because of conflict, drought and a lack of basic services. In 2002,
the largest group was from Iraq – 17 per cent.

Crawley says: “September 11 legitimised an existing anti-Islamic
feeling. Despite knowing for years what’s been going on in Iraq,
the government has refused asylum to Iraqis for some time, so there
has been no general sympathy towards them.

“People’s sympathy isn’t a reflection of what groups of refugees go
through. It’s very much a reflection of how government deals with
asylum arrivals, and how they sit with the undercurrents of concern
around the broader political agenda.

“The public needs proper information about the conditions from
which many asylum seekers originate so they can respond
appropriately to the increase in numbers and do not feel that their
hospitality is being abused.”

The Vietnamese are one group of refugees who in general were viewed
sympathetically when they arrived here. “Their plight was
high-profile at the time, and it was portrayed in compassionate
terms,” says Rylance. “There was a universal understanding of what
happened in Vietnam. Today there are so many localised conflicts
and most people don’t understand the complexities. There’s a
feeling of ‘can we be responsible for what happens

More than 1.6 million Vietnamese have settled in new countries
since 1975. Most used small wooden boats to cross the South China
Sea – hence the well-known term “Vietnamese boat people”. The last
major exodus was a result of post-war political and economic
upheaval in the 1980s and 1990s. Some refugees came to the UK under
the family reunion programme sponsored by relatives already living
here. This started in 1976 and continues today.

It is estimated that more than a third of those attempting to
escape died on their way. About half the refugees fled to
neighbouring countries in south east Asia. In May 1979, then prime
minister Margaret Thatcher proposed to the secretary-general of the
UN that an international conference be convened to help with the
problem. Sixty-five governments agreed to accept a quota of
refugees to ease the burden on neighbouring countries. The UK
accepted 10,000 of these “enterprising people”, as Thatcher called
them. Another quota followed in the early 1980s.

Vietnamese refugees arrived at reception areas all over the UK,
generally staying there for several months before being allocated
housing – often on a no-choice basis. Refugee Action grew out of
one of these reception projects. Although some Vietnamese people
were housed in cities, many were dispersed to remote rural areas in
Scotland and Wales. Many moved on to bigger cities where there was
a larger Vietnamese community, such as London.

Refugee Action has recently launched the Vietnamese oral history
project to preserve the stories of refugees who have settled in
this country. Testimonies reveal a common thread of prejudice,
though less charged and politicised than it is now. “Refugee wasn’t
a dirty word then,” says Rylance.

Many found the early stages of resettlement, which was similar to
the current dispersal system, difficult. Rylance says that they
felt being scattered was a setback and it took them years to
resettle into communities. “The lesson we learned was that refugees
need sustainable communities and to be able to help themselves. We
trained some as social workers so they could help their own

“The first generation of refugees found it much harder to adjust to
life here. Many people felt quite cut off from mainstream British
society for many years, and looked to their children to be the
success stories.”

The public’s perception of asylum seekers is taken from what the
government tells it, says Crawley. “I don’t think it’s even as
crude as race. The way eastern Europeans are treated now shows that
being white doesn’t necessarily save you from hostility. In a way,
history is repeating itself.”

1 Institute of Race Relations,
The Dispersal of Xenophobia, IRR, 2000

2 S Castles, H Crawley and S Loghna, States of
Conflict: Causes and Patterns of Forced Migration to the EU and
Policy Responses
, IPPR, 2003

Where do refugees arrive from?

According to Home Office estimates, refugee groups coming to the
UK since the second world war include:

  • 250,000 Polish nationals (1940s and 1950s) 
  • 50,000 other eastern Europeans (1940s and 1950s) 
  • 17,000 Hungarian nationals (1956) 
  • 5,000 Czech nationals (1968) 
  • 3,000 Chileans (1970s) 
  • 19,000 south east Asians (1970s) 
  • 40,000 people from more than 50 countries who sought asylum on
    an individual basis  Since the 1980s, the government has also
    accepted these refugee groups as part of government
  • 5,820 south east Asians (1985-95) 
  • 2,500 Bosnians (1992-7) 
  • 4,345 Kosovars (1999)

What is a refugee?

Under international law – the 1951 UN Convention Relating to
Refugees – the term “refugee” is defined as someone who: 

  • has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race,
    religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or
    political opinion; 
  • is outside the country they belong to or normally reside in,
  • is unable or unwilling to return home for fear of

At first, the convention applied only to European nationals, as
it was drawn up in response to the millions of refugees in
post-second world war Europe. But in 1967, the UN extended it to
cover anybody in the world at any time.

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