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2 June 2011

What the dog-whistle debate about asylum seeker “amnesty“ ignores

The culture of denial in the Home Office is what has led to this backlog and ranch of untraceable ca

By Samira Shackle

So many asylum seekers have been granted leave to remain in the UK as the border agency tries to clear its backlog that it “amounts to an amnesty”, according to a report by the home affairs select committee.

While the Immigration Minister, Damian Green, has strenuously denied that this is the case, Labour has predictably attacked the government from the right. The Shadow Immigration Minster, Gary Sutcliffe, told BBC News: “This government came into power saying they were going to deal with immigration but they’ve cut the resources, cut the budget… The rhetoric doesn’t fit the reality.”

The headline figure in the report was that of the 403,500 cases processed, only 9 per cent resulted in removal from the UK, while 40 per cent were given leave to remain. Officials were also unable to trace 74,500 asylum seekers out of a total of 450,000 unsolved “legacy” cases.

There are several basic points to make here, that the mud-slinging match about who made more of a mess of immigration fails to take into account.

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Firstly, there would not be such a huge backlog and so many untraceable cases were it not for the Home Office’s ludicrous culture of denial. Due to a very rigid interpretation of the Refugee Convention, many people are refused asylum if they cannot show strong evidence of persecution directed at them: war or widespread human rights abuses are not enough. Many are refused even if it has been deemed unsafe or logistically impossible to return to their home countries, leaving asylum seekers in a difficult catch 22.

Not only are they left utterly destitute, banned from working yet without any state support, but the Home Office can, in many cases, lose all record of them. It would be both humane, and practical for the purposes of removing people in the long-term, to grant them some kind of temporary status that allows them to work, pay taxes, and stay in the system. The untold story of this “administrative backlog” is the people who have spent years living in limbo – which can have devastating effects on physical and mental health – and unable to legally seek work and support themselves.

Secondly, many of the cases dealt with in this backlog are people who have been in the country for nearly 20 years. In these cases, removal is complicated – their home countries might refuse to take them, for a start. And if they have behaved as law-abiding citizens for that long, have they not earned the right to stay? It is misleading to claim – as the report does – that legalising the status of people who have already been living here for well over a decade present a “considerable cost to the taxpayer”. To the contrary, giving them the right to remain will allow them to contribute to the UK by paying tax.

“We understand that ministers would have been unwilling to announce an amnesty for the applicants caught up in this backlog, not least because it might be interpreted as meaning that the UK was prepared more generally to relax its approach to migration; but we consider in practice an amnesty has taken place, at considerable cost to the taxpayer,” the MPs conclude.

But what exactly do they suggest as an alternative? These people are here, and their cases must be dealt with. Far too often in the public debate, immigration is conflated with asylum. They are two very distinct things: economic migration is a choice, while seeking asylum is a human right. The idea that humane treatment of asylum seekers will send out a message that Britain is a soft touch is ridiculous, given that when most asylum seekers embark on their journeys, they have no idea where they will end up. Figures have consistently shown that the numbers of people seeking asylum spike with human rights abuses and conflicts, not because of “pull factors” like changes to immigration law.

However, given the dog whistle nature of the debate around asylum and immigration, it seems unlikely that these issues will receive the kind of productive discussion they need.