BAE Systems should pay for a family's place on a lorry for every Hawk jet it sells to the country they are fleeing

After hearing Robin Cook's now infamous "chicken tikka masala" speech, I decided that my definition of hell would be seeing Cook make an acceptance speech for winning the Most Patronising Politician of the Year Award. After exhaling his characteristic sigh, he would launch into "I have to say well done to the judges, you had a very hard job and you all did very well", before patting everyone on the head and giving them "tuppence for an ice cream". His sugar-coated vision of British multicultural harmony was not only inaccurate and hypocritical, but was so bland and glib that Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder would have refused to sing "Ebony and Ivory" on the same platform.

The Labour government's playing of the race card is nowhere more evident than in its proclamations and policies on asylum-seekers. It was Labour, and the Home Office minister Mike O'Brien, who played up the image of "bogus" asylum-seekers that has led to the present frenzy of bigotry about people escaping persecution. Little thought was given to the effects their statements would have, or to the reasons why people become refugees.

In 1989, 4,000 Kurds arrived from Turkey in the space of six weeks because their villages had been destroyed by the Turkish armed forces. I am willing to bet that, before fleeing, not one of those 4,000 went to the trouble of comparing which country had the most rewarding benefit system in Europe. Strange as it may seem to politicians, when your house has been torched, your water poisoned, your fruit trees burnt and your animals shot, you have little time to get into an internet chatroom where asylum-seekers can swap information on hotel accommodation in Dover.

The conditions from which people flee are not naturally occurring ones, but are created. If politicians want to stop refugees having to come to Britain, they can start by stopping the sale of weapons to conflict regions and dodgy regimes. Of the top 15 countries of origin for asylum-seekers last year, nearly all were regions of conflict - and in many cases there is a stunningly obvious link with British arms dealing. Not surprisingly, Iraq came top with 7,080 people seeking asylum last year; although we don't sell arms to Iraq any more, we certainly made up for this in previous years. I dare say that our habit of bombing the place, refusing export licences for basic medicines such as diphtheria vaccines, and allowing the Turkish military into the "safe havens" to wreak havoc has contributed to one or two of the 7,080.

Other countries on the list (Turkey, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Algeria, Sierra Leone, India and the former Soviet Union) have a more direct connection with British arms exports. In 1999, according to the government's Strategic Export Controls report, we sold heavy and general-purpose machine-guns, grenades and military software, among other items, to Sri Lanka. Lo and behold, in the year 2000, 6,040 people fled Sri Lanka to Britain.

Algeria received £5.5m worth of arms from the UK and we received 1,545 people from Algeria. Turkey spent £188m on UK arms (including components for air missiles, armoured fighting vehicles, machine-guns, grenades, mortars, shotguns and a whole load of stuff that does more harm than good when assembled) and 3,925 people fled Turkey and came to the UK.

Thus Britain receives one asylum-seeker from Turkey for every £47,898 spent on UK arms. The figures obviously vary. Pakistan, for example, creates one refugee per £4,071 of UK weapons sales. India buys £30,914 worth of equipment per refugee coming to Britain. Arms companies often stress their importance for British jobs, but never the social costs. If they did, we would see chief executives on podiums announcing: "This deal will not only provide employment, but will also create 18 Daily Mail editorials, three hours of Ann Widdecombe speeches and about 12 random beatings of people with funny accents."

If arms dealing helps create asylum-seekers, then the arms companies should pay. PizzaExpress can give 25p to charity for every pizza Veneziana purchased, so why can't BAE Systems pay for a family's place on a lorry for every Hawk jet it sells. Maybe it could support a detention centre and have big signs with "Campsfield sponsored by Royal Ordnance" on the perimeter fence. Better still, why not change the law to allow refugees the right to seek sanctuary in the chief executive's home. People such as Richard Evans, the chairman of BAE Systems, have often argued how moral and responsible their businesses are: under this law, they would get the chance to say this to the refugees directly, over breakfast.

If refugees were guns, they would have more freedom. When refugees arrive in Europe, they must make their asylum claim at the point of entry; not knowing they should do this is no excuse. They are fingerprinted and photographed, and they must explain why they are claiming asylum. In Britain, they are not given cash but vouchers to spend in specific shops, and they must report to the Home Office at regular intervals. In some cases, they are detained in prison. Oh, what freedom a gun has compared to this!

As soon as weapons leave British soil, our obligations end. Robin Cook is keen to point out that we do not sell arms that are used for "internal oppression or external aggression". Yet there is no "end-use monitoring" of these weapons, so we simply do not know if his claim is true or not. By this logic, you can claim that rubbing your genitals against plutonium rods is good for you, as long as no one checks on whether it is safe or not.

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, John Prescott: sinking fast