Passions are high at Cook's Eel and Pie Shop in Newham, in the East End of London. "I don't understand why they keep letting them in," says Pat Brown, who has been serving pie and mash from behind the tiled counter for 25 years. She says the area is "flooded" with immigrants.
Pat lives in private accommodation, having moved out of her council flat after waiting in vain to be rehoused. "There's such competition for housing, and you know that there's always going to be people who need it more than you do." Her 19-year-old son, Nathan, is unemployed, and Pat says he has tried to find work, but "there are so many desperate people around here who will do it cheaper". Street violence is a serious problem in the area; there have been three stabbings on the high street in the past week. Nathan has been beaten up three times and now refuses to use public transport. "There's a lot of tension, but they only call it 'racial' when an Asian kid is the victim."
Newham has a long history of playing host to refugee communities. Cook's is surrounded by bustling halal butchers, sari merchants, Somali mini-markets, money-wirers, international call shops and kebab restaurants. It is one of two London boroughs where the white residents are now an ethnic minority.
Pat feels that the government and the local authorities priori- tise new immigrants' welfare over her own. "I do feel sorry for people from other countries, but we belong here and we're not treated fairly. It's the government that makes us racist."
Across town at the Refugee Council's headquarters in Brixton, "Amal" has just arrived from Somalia with her two-year-old son. Through an interpreter, she tells me that she fled her home after her father and sister were killed, and her husband and brother abducted. She shows me her son's Arc (Application Registration Card), the Home Office ID issued to all asylum applicants. Printed in emphatic black letters next to the photo of his chubby, baby face are the words "Employment prohibited". Amal won't be allowed to work until her asylum claim has been processed, and in the meantime she and her son will be living on £76 a week.
"It's getting worse every single day for asylum-seekers in Britain," says Stran Budak, a Refugee Council worker. She herself is a refugee who arrived from Turkey in the back of a lorry in 1998. She paid traffickers to smuggle her out after being put on trial for her involvement in the Kurdish rights movement. "There's more resentment now than when I arrived, and there's more poverty, as people are refused benefits."
A MORI poll conducted in February 2003 found that 34 per cent of the population thought immigration was the biggest problem facing Britain, ranking higher than crime or education. Other surveys have placed the figure even higher; the Times found that nine out of ten voters believed asylum- seekers were "a serious problem". In its efforts to reassure the public that it has the matter under control, the government has come down hard on asylum-seekers, limiting their access to benefits and services. The Refugee Council reports that most asylum-seekers in the UK experience hunger, cannot afford to buy clothes and shoes, and cannot maintain good health. Between January and September last year nearly 7,500 asylum-seekers were refused benefits under Section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. "We are trying to provide people with a hot meal a day, showers and laundry facilities, but we can't provide 7,500 people with accommodation," says the council's senior press officer, Jean Candler. "We don't think that it's our role to fill in huge gaps where the state is refusing to take responsibility."
Pro-immigration groups argue that concern over immigration is based upon misconceptions and veiled racism. A report on asylum by IPPR, the left-of-centre think-tank, notes that "public hostility to immigrants and refugees is not new: past waves of refugees from particular countries were treated with hostility . . . This may reflect political and media representation of their experiences." But anti-immigration lobbyists insist that their fears are based upon economic and social realities. The research institute Civitas, for example, has argued that immigration at its present level "imports poverty, creates parallel communities and increases social tensions, crime and public health problems such as TB and HIV".
The reality, as ever, lies somewhere between these extremes. During the 1990s, Britain did experience a dramatic demographic shift: more than one-third of the 4.8 million immigrants to the UK arrived in the past decade, and the number of asylum applications rocketed from 4,300 in 1987 to 84,100 in 2002. Local authorities, particularly in the south-east, found their resources stretched, and resentment towards new arrivals grew as locals were forced to compete for council housing and other resources.
Colin Sandbach served as a councillor in Haringey, north-east London, for four years and was the council's lead member for housing from 2001 to 2002. "Large numbers of asylum-seekers were arriving in Haringey, as it's a multicultural area with many established immigrant communities. They all had to be housed by the local authority, which put a huge strain on resources and increased waiting times for the locals. This caused a lot of resentment, not least among the area's better-established ethnic-minority communities, who didn't want it filling up with 'foreigners'."
Many who work in the public services in inner-city areas insist that the overall impact of the new arrivals has been positive. The 860 pupils at Nelson Primary School in Newham speak 43 languages between them, and 186 have refugee status. Tim Benson, the headmaster, has been working in the East End for 30 years and clearly loves the diversity of the local community. "The children in this school are an incredible resource for Britain," he says. "Some of them speak four languages fluently. We should stop treating them as a problem and tap into their valuable skills."
Others in Newham's education sector point to significant problems. Luana Solomon runs an educational programme for teenage refugees at the Trinity Community Centre. Her pupils arrived in the UK as unaccompanied minors. "If a child is 15 or 16 when they arrive, they are often told that there are no available places at normal secondary school," she says. "They are put into a parallel system called Newlap, which was created for socially excluded children and truants. It has become a dumping ground for refugee children. We suspect that schools don't want to admit refugee kids as they fear it will bring down the academic level." Of the 16 refugee children in Solomon's class at Trinity, not one has been given a school place.
Healthcare workers in east London report an equally complex picture. Deniz Gurtin is a consultant pediatrician at Homerton hospital in Hackney. She came to Britain from Turkey in 1988, and has been working in the National Health Service in inner-city London ever since. "I love working in such a multicultural area. I enjoy it and feel useful," she says. "Like many qualified people who leave their country, I feel guilty that I didn't stay behind. But there are so many Turkish patients here, and I see the relief on their faces when they realise I'm Turkish, too."
She says that Homerton, like many hospitals, relies heavily on immigrant nurses and healthcare assistants. She doesn't dismiss fears about imported diseases. "Hackney and Newham have the highest rates of TB in London, and also the most immigrants. But that is just a feature of a world in which people travel more."
Clare Highton, a Hackney GP, has a different explanation. "Asylum-seekers don't come into this country with TB. They develop it after a couple of years living in deprived and overcrowded conditions in Britain," she says. "Many also develop mental health problems. One patient of mine was an amazing young man, a Kurdish asylum-seeker, who would tell me how desperate he was at the thought of going back. His asylum application was turned down and he hanged himself."
Highton says that the special needs of patients at her practice - who include many torture victims - are not recognised in the allocation of funds. "About one in ten of my patients speak no English whatsoever, yet we are given no money for translation," she says.
The government has tried to alleviate the burden on communities and public services in the south-east by dispersing asylum-seekers to other parts of the country. In 1999, the National Asylum Support Service (Nass) was established as the central body tasked with organising support and accommodation for all Britain's asylum-seekers. Implemented in haste and under pressure, some of the early experiments with dispersal highlight how serious the social effects of badly managed immigration can be. In a report published last month by the Commons home affairs committee, the Immigration Advisory Service reports that "the dispersal policy led to a number of racist attacks, some of which were fatal".
Glasgow's Sighthill estate was the site of one such tragedy. On 5 August 2001, Firsat Yildiz, a Kurdish asylum-seeker, was stabbed to death on the estate. Though his white attacker was not a resident of Sighthill, and had in fact attacked a German tourist that same day, Yildiz's death brought racial tensions on the estate to an explosive head. A string of racial attacks followed, and several marches were organised by groups of asylum-seekers and local residents. The Daily Record, Scotland's biggest-selling tabloid, inflamed the situation by reporting that Yildiz had been a "bogus" asylum-seeker.
Sighthill was chosen as a dispersal area despite being one of the most deprived estates in Glasgow. Levels of unemployment, addiction and mental health problems among the residents are high. When, in 2001, Nass and the council decided to house more than a thousand asylum-seekers in the empty flats on the estate, residents were neither informed nor consulted about the decision. Billy Singh, head of Sighthill's recently established community centre, tells me: "The first people here knew of the plan was when vans arrived and unloaded shiny new fridges and furniture, which obviously caused resentment in such a poor area. Then, literally in the middle of the night, buses full of asylum-seekers started arriving. Over the course of several months, the community was completely transformed by an influx of newcomers, few of whom spoke English. No extra community facilities were provided, and no attempt was made to integrate the new arrivals."
Singh is struggling to run the new centre from a two-bedroomed flat on the estate, which has a population of 7,500. "The problem was never really the asylum-seekers," he says, "it was poverty and the neglect of this community by local authorities." The key to a good immigration policy, he argues, is that "both the host community and the asylum-seekers have to be consulted and prepared". If only more of the participants in the immigration debate had their feet so firmly on the ground.