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17 April 2000

How we scapegoated asylum-seekers

How do you stop a "flood" of refugees reaching Britain? Make the lives of the persecuted and poor in

By Nick Cohen

An Algerian calls from the Campsfield internment centre in Oxfordshire with a snippet of news from a brutal social crisis. He’s a member of the Islamic opposition who escaped when the war between fundamentalist and government death squads got too hot. He applied for asylum, was refused, went on the run and was caught. He will make a profit for Group 4 until he is deported. The Home Office has told the Algerian authorities he’s on his way back. He expects a welcoming committee.

Can I help? “I doubt it,” I think. “I’ll give it a go,” I say. “May I use your name?” God dwells in the detail in journalism. Proper names, dates, places turn what would be unprintably vague meanders into hard, specific pieces. But I can’t write anything. Publicity would further antagonise the Algerian authorities, he replies. I sigh and reflect that asylum-seekers might have been designed by a committee of the Conservative and new Labour parties, mandarins and the Mail as the model scapegoat for snobs to throw to the mob. They’re too frightened to bleat even when they’re beaten by the righteous.

On the radio, William Hague and Barbara Roche are having a competition. Roche, the new immigration minister, is learning quickly that a smart palming of the race card from the bottom of the deck can turn censorious eyes from the collapse of her department. She tells parliament of the “dreadful burden” that cozening asylum-seekers lay on gullible taxpayers. The burden is 19p per citizen per week. It would be lighter if either Michael Howard or Jack Straw had attended to his duties and cleared the backlog of 100,000 unresolved cases. Both might have tackled the failure of the computers at the Home Office’s Immigration and Nationality Department to do anything so technical as work. Howard might not have sacked immigration officers. Straw might have thought for a couple of seconds before allowing an office relocation programme that threw a confused department into chaos. Both might have ensured that their underlings stopped issuing inadequate and contemptuous refusals of asylum which can be challenged for years in every available tribunal (and are thus a positive incitement to economic migrants to apply).

But the great advantage of the scapegoat is that the beast takes the blame for the blunders of others. In theory, I know the history of the powerful’s manipulation of prejudice well. Yet it is still stunning to see, in your own time and land, the weak persecuted as master criminals, while the inciters of racial hatred and mere incompetents vibrate with their sole sympathy: self-pity.

When Siemens, the German information geniuses, did to the Passport Office what it had already done to the asylum service, no one denounced “bogus holidaymakers”. Straw apologised in person to citizens queuing at Petty France and the system was made to work sharpish. What would an apology to asylum-seekers be like? It would take days to deliver.

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Hague meets the Roche challenge on the Today programme. A political paradise of lower taxes and lavish public services could be ours if only we stopped spending a fortune mollycoddling those who seek sanctuary. The sly creeps are so back-breakingly burdensome that their very presence is all that prevents us living on the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

Last year, Hague’s MPs opposed the government’s ferocious asylum bill. Along with the Liberal Democrats, they warned that ministers’ sickly caveat – “but we have nothing against genuine refugees” – was a lie. The ports would be closed in April 2000 to honest refugees as well as economic migrants. The drivers of lorries, cars, planes, boats and trains would throw them out to escape fines of £2,000 a passenger. (“Anne Frank would have been turned away” if Blair had been in power, shouted one former Thatcherite.) The opposition deplored Straw’s proposal to strip asylum-seekers in Britain of their jewellery and watches. (“You’ll be wanting the gold fillings out of their teeth next,” cried a second.) Mike O’Brien, Straw’s smug deputy, responded in the language he likes best. The Tories were “soft on immigration”, he sneered. They were “the illegal immigrants’ friend”.

No way was the Conservative leadership going to be out-niggered by new Labour. James Clappison, their thoughtful home affairs spokesman, was shunted aside and replaced by that Blue Madonna of Christian charity, Ann Widdecombe. England’s holiest virgin countered that it was Straw who was the true softie. If all who ask to be accepted as refugees are not interned, half the world will be at Dover.

No way will new Labour be out-niggered by the Tories. The brave Home Secretary has, yet again, been inspired by the far-ish right and is planning to pepper Britain with private internment camps. Dot com companies may be drooping, but it is boom time for Group 4 and the Corrections Corporation of America.

Others will be less fortunate. On the rare occasions when the deskilled Home Office gets on with its work, adjudicators accept that deportation will endanger between a third and a half of asylum-seekers. Westminster now wants the victims of great crimes to be locked up without trial. For how long? The six months that Straw says it will take to judge an application? The two years that it takes in reality? And speaking of taking, what kind of country are we being taken to?

A harassed woman from the Refugee Council suggests an answer. The past weeks have, with one thing and another, left her exhausted. Yet she’s kindly found the time to fax me reports from Manchester of the voters heeding the exhortations of their betters. Two Kosovan refugees have been attacked with bricks and brandy bottles. Kurdish women were mugged by a gang of 20 to shouts of “You’re not English”. Similar items are popping up everywhere, alongside accounts of hospitality that would shame a less shameless elite.

But shame is not a weakness of the political class. Lord Williams of Mostyn, the Attorney General, might have met violence with zero tolerance. Instead, he is punishing the innocent by ordering them to live under curfew. There’s “tough on crime” for you.

I tramp to the Medical Campaign for the Care of the Victims of Torture, which offers physical and psychological nursing to about 5,000 patients a year. Alex Sklan, the director of clinical services, guesses that the local press are missing more than they report. It has become commonplace for his colleagues to see wounds that were not inflicted in foreign torture chambers but made in Britain.

His office looks like a supermarket storeroom. King-size boxes of cheap cornflakes from the Red Cross fill the shelves. He eyes them with distaste. All contributions are gratefully received, naturally, he just wishes the contributions weren’t quite so bulky. Sklan wants small parcels of concentrated nutrition – rice, pulses, canned meat – which the sick can carry and eke out for weeks. He gives his visitors what food he has – and the fares home. Getting them to his doctors and back again is becoming as painful as treating their wounds.

The Home Office is slowly pushing asylum applicants out of London. (It had meant to take the pressure off the south-east in one giant evacuation, but the bureaucracy, to the surprise of no one, couldn’t manage the task.) They must live in new towns without friends or interpreters. There’s a letter from a Huddersfield GP on Sklan’s desk. The doctor has seen this Kurd. He can’t understand one word in ten that the man says, but thinks he hears “Halabja”. Wasn’t that where Saddam Hussein dropped nerve gas on insurgent Kurds? Will Sklan look at his charge?

He would, but how will the Kurd afford to travel to London? It’s not just the distance. The government has forced asylum-seekers into penury. They have to live on benefits (they are not allowed to work) that are 30 per cent below the official poverty line. Most of the tiny amounts (£35 for a single man, £104 for a family of four) are being paid in food vouchers supplied by Sodexho, a multinational services conglomerate which, coincidentally, owns a large slice of the Corrections Corporation of America whose profit prospects look so cheerful.

The vouchers must be used in selected shops, not in street markets where food is cheapest. Refugees have to rely on £10 pocket money a week to cover all the services, from phone calls to bus fares, that require coins of the realm. Our open government refuses to release figures, but the best estimates say that the new “Asylo” currency will cost three times as much as cash benefits to administer. Leaving the degradation aside, the Asylo is a badge of shame which tells every tough guy that the possessor is a thieving foreign cheat.

Given the enormity of the current repression, I find it odd that it has been the minutiae of the voucher system that arouses what anger there is in liberal circles. It must be the gold-fillings effect that is getting to people. Little acts of viciousness are the killer details which show that a Rolls-Royce mind in Whitehall has thought very hard about how to turn every screw.

Straw, for example, has ordered Sainsbury’s and the other shops in the Asylo market not to give change. If refugees buy £4.50 worth of baby food with a £5 voucher, the store pockets their coins. Sodexho’s gloating publicists tell retailers that lawful penny-pinching is “a revenue-making opportunity”. Ministers, meanwhile, have decided that alien children should be denied toys as well as hearty meals. If you want to help by giving them your offspring’s cast-offs or the contents of your fridge, the state is ready for you.

Clause 9(4)(b) of the Asylum Support Regulations states that Straw “must take into account any other support which is available to the principal or any dependant” when deciding benefit. In other words, if charities hand out toys or groceries, the cost of the gifts can be deducted from benefits.

The phone rings. “Did you know Co-ops in Gloucestershire are making asylum-seekers give up all their bags before they go in? There’s a guy from Kosovo and he’s just humiliated. Really cut-up.” I travel to Liverpool to interview Peter Kilfoyle for a television documentary. He stops a dirt-poor pensioner in the street and asks what issues of the day trouble him. “They’re letting all these foreigners in, Peter, and treating them like kings.”

If politicians and journalists were being honest, they would say that refugees have been on the move since the fall of the Berlin Wall, which opened up the Eurasian land mass and marked the beginning of the massacres in Yugoslavia and central Africa. A minority gets to western Europe. A minority of that minority reaches Britain. Some are victims of persecution. Others are impoverished strangers trying to improve their lot. A few are chancers. An efficient and fair government would protect the sheep and deport the goats. We scapegoat instead, because we don’t want any of them.

We can’t announce this too loudly because we would have to renounce our UN obligations. So we pretend we care for the authentic while blocking every legal route to Britain and driving them into the hands of criminal smugglers. We pretend that decency and tolerance define the British character, while persecuting victims.

My e-mail icon flashes as a round robin from a charity worker arrives. “I just thought I’d share with everyone the fact that the Home Office Asylum Policy Unit’s new headed notepaper has the following slogan: ‘Building a safe, just and tolerant society.'”