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20 May 2002

Let them all come

It's not a soft touch welfare system that makes Britain a magnet for immigrants; it's our need for c

By Nick Cohen

In January last year, Barbara Roche – now, thankfully, a forgotten politician – published an extraordinary report. Britain, the Home Office minister said, needed 150,000 immigrants from outside the EU every year for the next 20 years. They had to come to keep the economy moving and provide doctors, nurses, computer programmers, engineers, skivvies and navvies. Roche had advanced her career by pushing political asylum-seekers into penury and using every method she could devise to keep genuine refugees out. Yet in her last months at the Home Office, economic reality had forced her to abandon rabble-rousing and propose mass immigration. No one took much notice.

The projections are more startling in the rest of the European Union. At the same time as Roche’s report came out, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, then the French interior minister, said that the EU needed 75 million immigrants by 2050. Admittedly, no one can guarantee that these estimates are accurate. But the nature of an honest debate is easy enough to imagine.

It would begin with a blunt statement that Britain and the rest of the European Union have falling birth-rates and an ageing population. The EU will need millions of immigrants if it is to pay the pensions of today’s workers. Honesty would then require a discussion about who should be let in. If the government had total control, it might prefer, for instance, a website designer to a specialist in Arab poetry from Iraq without portable skills. But the government doesn’t have total control and insists it doesn’t want it. New Labour says it wants to uphold international law and has nothing against refugees who can prove that they have a genuine fear of persecution. It merely wants to stop economic migrants getting in by posing as refugees.

Those on the other side might reply that they have honest arguments of their own. They might say that there is a limit to how many foreigners a culture can absorb. It would be better for Britain to be poorer than more ethnically diverse. They might say that they are prepared to sacrifice the wealth of pensioners to protect the unskilled working class, whose wages could well be held down, and trade unions, which could be weakened by the influx of cheap labour.

They might make these and many other good arguments. But, instead, the newspapers and bigots in all parties demand toughness – and the government gives it to them. We have had years of systemic lying. Worthless hacks assure their readers that only 20 per cent of asylum-seekers are allowed to stay by the Home Office and the rest are frauds (actually, the real figure is 50 per cent); that aliens are flooding in to sponge off the absurdly generous welfare state (asylum-seekers have to live way below the official poverty line); and that one million illegal immigrants have disappeared in British cities (no one has the faintest idea how many people have disappeared).

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The biggest lie is that apparently authoritative label “illegal immigrant”. The distinction between genuine refugees and illegal immigrants is more bogus than Tony Blair’s smile. No refugee, however authentic, can travel to Britain legally. The government imposes visa restrictions on the countries from which they are fleeing and then refuses to issue visas to those claiming sanctuary. The daily reports of illegal immigrants storming the Channel Tunnel neglect to mention that some – not all – are the genuine victims of persecution.

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The government has not explained forcefully the economic consequences of keeping foreigners out. Its profession of concern for genuine refugees is a transparent falsehood, albeit one that is rarely exposed. Mendacity is expected. What no one foresaw was that the attempt to placate the media mob would rebound.

The Asylum Act 1999 appeared to have closed the last means of illegal entry into Britain. The owners of cars and lorries would join the owners of planes and ships and be fined if they were found with a visa-less asylum-seeker in their vehicles. The Tories – yes, the Tories – protested that drivers and haulage companies would avoid fines only if they could prove that an asylum-seeker had forced them to carry him to Britain. That the driver might not know there was a man hiding somewhere in a huge container was no defence. The government reversed the ancient principle that a citizen is innocent until the state proves he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Geoff Hoon, then a junior minister in the Lord Chancellor’s Department, said to his Labour colleagues that although “he had listened to a great many tedious speeches” in the Commons, he seriously doubted if “anyone had plumbed so deeply the depths of dullness achieved by[the Tories]”. Blair promoted Hoon to the cabinet. Perhaps the Prime Minister regretted his decision, when the Court of Appeal ruled in February that the supposedly competent and technocratic Hoon had breached the Human Rights Act. If the law lords uphold the verdict, the taxpayer will have to compensate the lorry-owners.

The likely cost is the least of the malign consequences of British and European attempts to stop asylum-seekers breaking into their fortresses. Because legal entry is impossible, the desperate have turned to people smugglers. The gangsters are deplored and are deplorable. But there is no doubt that they help genuine refugees. The “Snakeheads”, a Chinese triad, move economic migrants to Europe, but they also got dissidents out of China after the Tiananmen Square massacre. The more restrictions Europe imposes, the better business is for criminal entrepreneurs in the booming body-moving market.

Once inside Britain, a refugee has the right to claim asylum, and the government has to consider his case. It does so with surliness and bias. The Home Office issues Panglossian descriptions of life in the developing world to its immigration officers so that they can reject applicants from such noted centres of liberalism as Sri Lanka and Iraq with a minimum of thought.

The government’s tough blanket refusals may be giving the public what it wants, and passing the problem of who will supplement the workforce to the next generation of politicians. But as with the closing of the Channel ports to refugees, brutal policies have had unintended consequences. The asylum system is being paralysed by appeals. In the rest of the legal world, appeals are a rarity. When they come up, the hearings are usually short.

Because the hard men at the Home Office issue blanket rejections, any asylum-seeker can appeal about anything and everything – and tens of thousands do. An adjudicator with the Immigration Appellate Authority, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he and many of his colleagues were in despair. “The Home Office often doesn’t look at an individual’s circumstances or probe his claims,” he said. “It just says no. When people appeal, we have to start the case again from scratch.”

Peter Roberts, from the Public and Commercial Services Union, believes “word has got around” that, once you are in Britain, the system is so slow and incompetent you can stay here for years before a final decision is reached. The Immigration and Nationality Directorate in which his members work was devastated by the public spending freeze and the inept efforts of the Siemens Corporation. At great cost to the public and to the profits of its shareholders, Siemens tried and failed to produce a computer system for immigration case-workers. While new Labour talked tough, experienced staff were sacked. Their knowledge, Siemens said, was going to be made redundant by the benefits of a marvellous new technology – which was never made to work. Although David Blunkett is hiring staff, Roberts believes it will be years before the service recovers.

On its own terms, and at the most basic level, authoritarianism has flopped. The border restrictions, the miserly benefits, the prison camps, the blanket rejections and the constant abuse have had no effect on the numbers applying for asylum.

They come to Britain, says Nick Hardwick of the Refugee Council, in part because their countries were once in the British empire and in part because English is the global language. But they are also here because there is a demand for their labour. The ageing and dwindling workforce isn’t a statistical abstraction in actuaries’ tables, but a fact in the real economy. London, in particular, would have an economic breakdown if asylum-seekers and economic migrants were to vanish.

As it is, many disappear into the black economy. They undercut British workers. Criminals can attack or rob them with impunity because they are frightened of going to the police. Their employers don’t pay them the minimum wage and they don’t pay taxes. Unlike Michael Howard and Jack Straw, his abysmal predecessors as Home Secretary, Blunkett is at least willing to talk about regularising their position. But he won’t stop appeasing the far right and confront it with plain language. An honest politician would say that Britain not only has a duty to offer sanctuary to genuine refugees, it bloody well needs them – and economic migrants, too – and ought to be begging them to jump aboard the Eurostar and cling on until they pass the White Cliffs.