Vol 2, No 12
27 March 2000
U K P R E S S R E V I E W:
Women and Children First
It would be fair to say that the UK is a relatively tolerant country; not without its ethnic tensions and colonial hangovers and certainly owning up to a very British version of insularity but with a long history of welcoming immigrants, and in London, boasting probably the most successful example of a modern multicultural city in Europe. So why of late has there been such an outbreak of apoplexy amongst large numbers of journalists and politicians, allegedly caused by a new and overwhelming tide of "bogus" asylum seekers on the streets of the capital?
The initial spur for these stories' emergence in the media were the court appearances of a handful of Romani women who had been arrested for begging on the London Underground. Following on from last year's demonstrations in Dover against Romani immigrants and the strange asylum subplot to February's Afghan airline hijack drama at Stansted Airport, suddenly all hell broke loose in the press.
These migrants were, we were informed, not only profiting from the generosity of British state handouts, they were also aggressively begging on the streets; and as a direct consequence street crime had risen drastically, and the black economy was thriving. The proceeds of begging were apparently being funnelled back across Europe to Romani communities in Eastern Europe. Currently, the central figures of hate are Romani women carrying babies and sporting headscarves, who are apparently so cynical that, so I have read, they drug their babies to render them silent, serving as pathetic props while their mothers beg for money. All this and far more has filled the pages of the British press in the past month.
"Gypsy spongers are building themselves palaces with the vast fortune they're making from soft-touch Britain," related The Sun, the notorious tabloid daily that tops UK circulation tables. "Britain has had enough: we're laughing stock of Europe," it announced in a banner headline.
It was all the tabloids could do to restrain themselves when they gleefully discovered that the four-month-old son of one Romani woman convicted of begging allegedly rejoices in the name of Lucifer.
Such stories are by no means confined to the sensationalist end of the press, however. The middle-market Daily Mail, admittedly never known to show favour to immigrants, described the Roma as a "curse." Its stablemate, the Evening Standard, revealed that "a gipsy township in Romania is sending beggars to London on organised expeditions that support a community of 4000 people," while in The Daily Telegraph Marie Woolf noted that "there has been widespread public dismay at a visible increase in asylum seekers looking for casual work and begging on the streets."
Yet as Roy Greenslade noticed in The Guardian, despite the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail sending separate reporters all across Europe to track down the marble palaces of Romani hordes making it rich on British largesse, both succeeded in interviewing the same family, the Constantins. "England is a garden full of rich fruit," said one "gipsy elder," perhaps little knowing these words would be circulated all around the British press. Why the same family? Were there no others with marble palaces?
Xenophobic outbursts in the right-wing press are, unfortunately, not so rare as to cause great surprise, although the severity of tone in some recent articles has been disturbing. Nevertheless, the headlines have worried a Labour Government renowned for its obsession with "spinning" the reporting of news stories to its benefit. The party has evidence from focus groups (a favourite device of New Labour for assessing the state of public opinion) that immigration ranks behind only health and education on the list of issues relating to this government's performance that most concern voters. The situation has been greatly complicated by the huge backlog of applications for political asylum yet to be processed by the immigration authorities - still around 105,000, despite a slight reduction last month, with each applicant entitled to claim benefits while he or she waits an average of 13 months for a decision.
The Government has responded by signalling its intention to set up privately run fast-track immigration centres around Britain, where cases can be processed rapidly. The first such new "internment" camp opened on 20 March in Oakington near Cambridge. The Government has announced its wish to expel quickly and efficiently all those who fail the asylum test. It is also withdrawing cash benefits for asylum applicants in favour of vouchers; the new allowance for those awaiting a decision on their asylum claim is GBP 25 of vouchers and just GBP 10 cash per week. While the asylum claim is pending, applicants are forbidden from working; since this measure of benefits is considered to be about 30 per cent below basic subsistence level, it is small wonder that some turn to other sources of income.
Following the example of Germany, which has reduced its annual influx of asylum seekers from over 400,000 in 1993 to 95,300 last year, the UK government wishes to introduce effective deterrents for economic migrants.
Elsewhere, the British courts have been getting tougher with offending beggars. The Evening Standard reported "a 'Greedy' Romanian jailed for begging" in London. The international high-speed train operator Eurostar announced stringent checks of passengers to weed out illegal immigrants, while the European Union announced a scheme to fund repatriation of failed asylum seekers. Not to be outdone, Opposition Home Affairs spokesperson Ann Widdecombe called for asylum seekers in Britain caught begging to be jailed immediately before being automatically deported.
A wise view
Nick Cohen in The Guardian cites the view that "you should always keep an eye on how the Government treats asylum seekers because it shows how they would deal with the rest of us if it thought it could get away with it." Certainly, the current Government's reaction to the outcry speaks volumes about where its priorities lie: namely, placating the press and Middle England, and balancing the books. Certainly not with addressing the needs of the refugees.
When one untangles the rhetoric and special interests involved, what is at stake? Several different issues can be identified. Firstly, the question of whether there is a flood of asylum seekers at all, "bogus" or otherwise. There is some evidence to support the witch-hunt here: according to estimates from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UK saw a 50 per cent increase in applications for asylum in 1999 (hardly surprising, given there was a war going on in Europe at the time), and at 89,700 now has the second-highest annual total in Europe, behind only Germany. But on a per capita basis, Britain's situation is not exceptional: Switzerland tops the league with 5.8 applications per 1000 inhabitants. Europe as a whole experienced a 20 per cent rise in asylum applications last year. By international standards, Britain is not flooded with refugees, and in the middle of a long economic boom is quite capable of supporting them.
There is undoubtedly also a large but separate administrative problem here. The waiting list for applicants for asylum has doubled since Labour took power in 1997, hampering the Government's efforts to expel those who fall foul of the increasingly draconian criteria. (Not only are there 105,000 people on the waiting list, but about 126,000 asylum seekers are believed to have remained in the UK in spite of being rejected - they had disappeared by the time their case was decided). Ann Widdecombe has lost no time in reminding the nation of this disorganised state of affairs. However, as at least one writer has noted, the causes of this backlog are not unrelated to the installation - under the last Conservative Government, with Widdecombe a minister in the Home Office - of a new computer system which had been designed to process the applications.
Then there is the question of whether there are more beggars on UK streets and whether more of these are foreigners currently awaiting decisions on asylum. Undeniably, there are more of both than there were a decade ago and there is anecdotal evidence that begging practices have become more aggressive. But the situation is complicated. Since the 1980s, increasing numbers of homeless people have been a feature in British towns and cities once more, after post-war decades during which they had appeared to be a thing of the past. Tighter restrictions on welfare payments, combined with the national programme of "Care in the Community," designed to treat many mental health patients without long-term inpatient stays, served to increase the number of people forced to eke out a living on the streets. But reactions to these domestic beggars, in comparison with the hostility shown towards the apparent influx of foreign beggars more recently, is generally neutral or sympathetic. Rarely do they evoke unbridled hostility.
Libby Purves in The Times: "To create a public outcry and governmental bustle about women who beg with babies, it has been necessary for them to be identifiably foreign. Xenophobia and fears about immigration make an explosive cocktail out of what was previously an inert, depressing fact of life. There is something creepy about drastic action suddenly being taken just because the hands stretched out are olive-skinned."
Furthermore, will the immigration policy do what it is supposed to: screen out unworthy applicants while welcoming those genuinely in need of asylum? BBC World Affairs Editor John Simpson is adamant that the regulations already fail to meet their own aims: he writes of an Afghan doctor, who served as his own translator while filming a documentary exposé on the Taliban in 1996, and who was refused entry to Britain despite evidence that his life was in danger, only to be accepted later into another, more understanding European country.
In addition, there remains a clear racist element to the vitriol, which crystallises deep-seated anti-Roma and anti-East European sentiments. Roy Greenslade in The Guardian hits the nail on the head: "Let's play that simple psychological test known as word association. I'll save you the trouble of replying by supplying the answers, imagining I am a Daily Mail or The Sun reader. asylum seekers: scroungers. Gypsies: wily scroungers. Romanians: ungrateful scroungers. Albanians: dirty scroungers. Beggars: rich scroungers."
Of course, the Roma have had long experience of this hostility wherever they have lived, and this remains very much the case today - from London to Ustí nad Labem. The attitudes are still very disturbing. But perhaps equally perturbing are the attitudes towards Central and East Europeans, who, despite apparently being lined up for entry to the European Union, are still seen as the untamed East.
The British Government must avoid the pitfall into which the British media have so easily - and at times willingly - fallen: conflating the different issues involved and tarring them all with the same brush (just as it increasingly tars all asylum seekers with the same brush). It has been seen to take panic action in enacting legal and bureaucratic measures as a response to tabloid headlines about a small number of European Romani women and babies on trial.
Fortunately, a reaction to the intolerance has been building, predictably in articles published mainly (though not solely) in the left-leaning broadsheet The Guardian. The paper's former editor, Peter Preston, took issue with The Sun's polemic against Romani peoples and made the link with the current frostiness of EU governments towards Austria: "What would we say - what, indeed, would The Sun say - if Haider whipped up such a malignant storm? No need to ponder; it's his stock in trade. We'd call it all of a piece with his neo-Adolf pitch."
Elsewhere, Isobel Fonseca deconstructed the pernicious myths and superstition that underlie regular coverage of Roma and Andrew Marr examined the meanness of the West's response to immigration that it has, in many ways, caused and encouraged.
It was left to Jeremy Hardy to tackle a very serious subject with effective wit: "Everyone in the land should be ashamed and embarrassed that the politicians and media hacks who claim to speak for us are trying to turn these women into hate figures: the women have their babies with them! Where the bigots think these women should leave their babies, I don't know. In the beggars' créche at Oxford Circus, perhaps."
Oliver Craske, 25 March 2000
"News in brief: Asylum seeker queues grow by 50 per cent," The Daily Telegraph, 22 January 2000
Jeremy Hardy, "It beggars belief," The Guardian , 11 March 2000
Keith Dovkants, "Town that lives off London's beggars," Evening Standard, 14 March 2000
Nick Cohen, "Injustice for all," The Guardian, 19 March 2000.
Andrew Marr, "Our ugly intolerance," The Observer, 19 March 2000
David Bamber, "Immigrants who beg will be kicked out of the country," The Sunday Telegraph, 19 March 2000
"Hysteria and Hate," leader, The Guardian, 20 March 2000
Marie Woolf, "Curbs on asylum seekers who turn to crime," The Daily Telegraph, 20 March 2000
Roy Greenslade, "We hate you," The Guardian, 20 March 2000
Peter Preston , "The Sun could teach Haider a thing or two on Gypsies," The Guardian, 20 March 2000
Ian Burnett, "Eurostar checks to stop bogus asylum seekers," The Independent, 21 March 2000
Philip Johnston, "Asylum 'crackdown' that beggars belief," The Daily Telegraph, 21 March 2000
Isobel Fonseca, "The truth about Gypsies," The Guardian, 24 March 2000
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