That the issue of asylum and immigration would continue to preoccupy British politicians and press in 2001 was sadly predictable, given the imminence of a general election, which is expected in May.
Reaction to a Home Office report on 22 January, which provided encouragement for all immigrants, was dwarfed by that to the release of official figures detailing the estimated number of applicants for asylum in the UK in 2000. The latter were published on 25 January, revealing that Britain received nearly 100,000 asylum seekers last year, overtaking Germany to become the top destination in the EU.
Central European claimants fall sharply
The number applying from what The Daily Telegraph and The Times (both 26 January) described as "Eastern Europe" fell sharply in the past year, probably as a result of the tougher measures introduced by the Government in April 2000. Applications from Poland were down by 47 per cent on 1999 levels, and from the Czech Republic by 31 per cent (The Guardian, 26 January).
Yet the issue remains of importance for Central and Eastern Europe since increased immigration and asylum claims are Europe-wide phenomena (indeed, they go far beyond this continent) and colour EU states' attitudes to enlargement of the Union. The region is also the most common route to the EU for those coming from further east; and British Immigration Minister Barbara Roche announced that four immigration liaison officers would be established in Budapest, Zagreb, Vienna and Rome, which are apparently key transit points for asylum claimants and human traffickers (The Times, 26 January).
Home Office report
The Home Office report, entitled "Migration: An economic and social analysis," was received positively by refugee lobby groups. For example, the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns said, "This report does much to debunk the racist hysteria of politicians and the media against asylum seekers and migrants. Overall the report gives a positive picture of the impact of migration into the UK and calls for more migration and better integration."
The report confirmed that the foreign-born population in the UK are net contributors, paying about 10 per cent more into state coffers than they receive in Government expenditure, equivalent to around GBP 2.6 billion in 1998-1999.
A "soft touch"?
The campaign against immigrants and asylum seekers is led by the standard-bearers of the right-wing press, the broadsheet The Daily Telegraph and the middle-market tabloid Daily Mail.
"Asylum: Yes, Britain is a soft touch!" was the Daily Mail's front-page headline on 1 February, reacting to another report, that of the Commons Home Affairs Committee. The "soft touch" argument is commonly used by opponents of the current Labour Government to explain why rising numbers of asylum seekers are arriving in Britain.
The Government was taken to task by the opposition Conservatives for failing to deter the increase in claimants and also for not deporting more of those refused asylum, who constitute "almost 90 per cent" of applicants, according to the Telegraph's hardline leading article on 1 February.
The Telegraph denounced the Government for being "Soft on Immigration," claiming that "most asylum seekers are illegal economic migrants." Apart from the schizophrenic attitude this illustrates towards economic migrants—of which Europe is in need, according to demographers ("Go away, we need you," as the title of an article in The Economist put it on 26 January)—it's not even clear it's true.
Whatever else can be argued about the "genuineness" of asylum seekers, it's certainly the case that, as Richard Ford recorded in The Times on 26 January, the top five countries of origin for UK applicants in 2000 were ones in which there is "unrest": Iraq, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia and Iran. Somalia, Turkey and China make up the next three on the list. Romania is in tenth place.
Speeding up rejection verdicts
Alan Travis had noted in The Guardian on 26 January that in 2000 as many as 40 per cent of claimants were refused refugee status on "technical grounds," which usually meant they had "failed to comply with the new legal requirement to find legal advice and complete in English a complex 19-page form within 10 working days." Such "non-compliance" leads to automatic rejection of the application.
The number rejected on technical grounds leapt from 1085 (five per cent of claims) in 1999 to 26,630 in 2000. The Government has been accused of bowing to pressure and using unfair methods in order to reduce a huge backlog of unresolved claims.
On 26 January, another Telegraph leading article noted that there had been a seven per cent annual increase in asylum applications in the UK in January-October 2000, as compared to a 17 per cent reduction in Germany. It failed to report, however, that the British rise was modest compared with that of Belgium, which saw a 20 per cent increase, France, 30 per cent, Ireland, 65 per cent, and Denmark, 69 per cent. It was also modest compared with the UK's increase the previous year of over 40 per cent. The overall increase throughout the EU in 2000 was six per cent. (The Times, 26 January)
Playing the race card
Right-wing politicians who oppose immigration are often accused of pitching for the racist vote. In trying to turn such allegations back on those who make them, the Telegraph leader of 26 January made the charge that Labour is secretly encouraging asylum applicants, because "it knows that newly arrived groups are likelier to vote for big-government parties than not."
Not only this, but the article made the serious claim that:
... the salient characteristic of New Labour ideology is its determination to redefine Britain and Britishness—through sweeping constitutional and cultural change. It calculates that the enduring success of this project will depend upon sweeping demographic change as well. If it can ride out the initial storm, its chances of accomplishing this goal are dramatically increased.
Unmistakably, the Telegraph is raising the spectre of British culture being redefined (that is, polluted) through demographic change (that is, immigration).
It beggars belief that anyone could claim the Labour Government has been particularly encouraging to asylum seekers. Apart from desperately trying to deter them from coming in the first place, it has made life even more uncomfortable for those already here: holding over 1000 in jails or detention centres, giving others second-class status by providing benefits in the form of vouchers rather than cash, forcibly dispersing them around the country regardless of where relatives or friends may be located, and all the while doing little to discourage (and much to promote) their media depiction as greedy and worthless scroungers.
Labour's public pronouncements on asylum have not been quite as virulent as the Tories', but they have been unedifying enough, and have also helped provide unusual legitimacy to their opponents' language.
Why does Britain top the EU asylum league?
One difference exists in that British judges interpret the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees such that they may accept the validity of claims based on persecution by non-state actors. These have included claims made by applicants from CEE countries, where, in the unsympathetic words of Philip Johnston in The Daily Telegraph (26 January), "Gypsies claim they are persecuted by other citizens, though not by the state." In France and Germany such arguments are not allowed.
This led to a British judge recently refusing to deport a Somali and an Algerian to, respectively, Germany and France, because these states would probably send them home, where they might face torture and death. As such, Germany and France were deemed countries "unsafe" for refugees. (The Daily Telegraph, 20 December 2000)
But this is far from the whole story. "Is Britain a soft touch compared with the rest of Europe?" asked Alan Travis in The Guardian back on 5 January. "Perhaps a more convincing explanation of why people come here rests on their historic links through Britain's colonial past and the fact that English is the global language."
Sarah Spencer of the Institute for Public Policy Research agreed. In a letter to The Times (26 January), she wrote: "Research shows that asylum seekers exercise little choice on country of destination in Europe, and those who do are influenced by language, family and community ties."
Indeed, in per capita terms, Britain is not an exceptional asylum destination. It received 1.4 applications per 1000 members of the population, compared with 3.7 in Belgium, 2.4 in Ireland, 2.3 in Netherlands, 1.6 in Denmark and 0.8 in Germany. (The Times, 26 January)
In a telling survey last year, the effect of negative press coverage of asylum seekers was laid bare. When asked how much they thought an asylum seeker in the UK receives each week in state income benefits, the majority of survey respondents guessed it was well over GBP 100 per week. The real figure is GBP 25 in vouchers and GBP 10 in cash—less than the state's income support for the unemployed. (What is more, unlike the unemployed, asylum seekers are not allowed to seek a job for six months after arrival).
The discrepancy says much about the perception created by media reports of the issue and suggests that public hostility is in large part based on misconceptions. That the benefits to all concerned of unskilled immigration are shrouded in this kind of paranoia is a continuing tragedy.
Oliver Craske, 2 February 2001
- Archive of UK press reviews in CER
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Central and Eastern Europe through CER
- Return to CER front page
The Daily Telegraph
Home Office report: "Migration: An economic and social analysis"