Opinion, with Shami Chakrabarti

David Cameron’s predecessor as Conservative party leader, Michael Howard, is unlikely to be remembered by many for any sympathy towards asylum seekers. Nonetheless, there is a particular moment in our recent history that ought now to be savoured, if only for its irony.

In November 2003 Gaby Hinsliff  wrote in the Observer under the headline “Asylum children may be forced into care”.  She described how new government plans would present failed asylum seekers with a “stark choice: take a ‘voluntary’ flight to their native country, paid for by the state, or lose all benefits in the UK and have their children taken.” The following week in parliament, Michael Howard’s response to the Queen’s Speech contained the passionate plea that “…this time they’ve gone further than any civilised government should go.  Earlier this week we read in our newspapers that the government proposes to use the children of asylum seekers as pawns to cover up their failures to get a grip on their asylum chaos.”

Sadly, Howard’s subsequent promise that Conservatives would vote against such an illiberal measure were not to be borne out in the parliamentary session to come. It may have been that they anticipated a  new statutory power for social services to take the children of failed asylum seekers. Perhaps the Conservatives would have joined a coalition to defeat such a measure.

However, such an explicit provision proved unnecessary, existing child protection legislation being sufficient to enable the taking of children facing destitution and starvation.

Instead, what became section nine of the Immigration and Asylum Act 2004 simply allows for failed asylum seekers, and for the first time, those with children, to be denied support as a cowardly and cruel alternative to forced removal.

Some may argue that such a policy of encouraging “voluntary departure” is somehow more humane than the forced removal of families with children. Those of that view should perhaps imagine trying to explain it to a small child taken from parents who (rightly or wrongly), see the trauma of separation as more in a child’s interests than a return to whatever awaits in the country they fled. Better still, they should imagine giving such explanation to a small child of their own.

An alternative basis for the policy may lie in the way in which families facing deportation often arouse the sympathy of even the most apparently xenophobic local communities. There is perhaps nothing which connects any of us to the rest of humanity more than our children. This is as true of migrants as it is of anyone else.

Once children attend school and play with other kids, the despised statistic acquires a human face. A few extra children taken into the custody of social workers may be politically more palatable than the spectacle of families being dragged off by immigration officers and the police.

In the longer term, an effective destitution policy will surely lead to begging, crime and prostitution on the part of its targets, activities which are likely to increase sympathy for the authorities rather than the vulnerable people themselves. So by a cruel and pragmatic genius, social workers become immigration officers and children, to echo Howard, become pawns.

Previous attempts to use forced destitution as a lever for asylum control have ultimately foundered in the higher courts. Both Howard and David Blunkett have attempted such inhumane policies, only to be tripped up by the men in wigs.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful for our politics and civil society if common decency weren’t left to the judges this time round?

What about the new leader of the Opposition? Here’s a thought for Cameron’s policy review. What would give more substance to “compassionate Conservatism” than finally to honour Howard’s surprising promise of 2003?

Shami Chakrabarti is head of Liberty

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