Blocking the gateway

In asylum matters the Home Office is the usual villain of the piece
as it seeks to exclude as many applicants as possible from this
country. So it was a rare coup this week for home secretary David
Blunkett to be able to place himself on the side of the angels as
he castigated local authorities for failing to take enough asylum
seekers. It was a strange turn of events, only partly explained by
the fact that it concerned a specific group of asylum seekers,
namely the 500 who have been identified under the Home Office’s
“gateway protection programme”.

These are Africans who have suffered war, torture and rape, and
whose case for asylum is so strong that even the government cannot
miss it. Apparently most local authorities can, though many of them
might argue that there is a clear need for more money and support
from government.

The trickle of refugees coming to the country under the scheme – 69
arrived in Sheffield in April – is a reminder that fortress Britain
is not entirely the fault of the Home Office. The siege mentality
can be seen in the row between West Sussex Council and the
government over the future of several thousand Diego Garcians who
are waiting to be resettled in the county. And, on a bigger scale,
it could be seen in the aftermath of 9/11 when parliament was quite
happy to pass an act that makes it easy to deny foreigners
protection under the European Convention on Human Rights. It
resulted in this week’s appeal to the House of Lords by nine terror
suspects detained without trial for three years, sometimes on the
flimsiest of pretexts, all of whom fled persecution in their own

In the last case, the decisive argument is supposed to be the sheer
horror of what happened in New York three years ago and may happen
again. In this political climate, anything goes. But that has long
been the fate of the foreigner, certainly if he or she is black.
The suspicions and grievances that greet every mention of asylum
have essentially the same source, which is why the reluctance of
local authorities to take the African rape and torture victims is
so disappointing. Here was a chance to make a stand for asylum
seekers and they flunked it.

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