Refugees. Asylum Seekers. Economic Migrants.
What exactly are they?
They're in the news all of the time. If you were foolish enough to ask him, the "man in the street" would probably tell you that they are certainly a bad thing, that they come over here and take our jobs and live in our houses, and that they don't even bother to learn the language.
If you want to see what I mean, how about this from Migration Watch UK:
"In 2002 net foreign immigration was nearly 250,000 while 91,000 British citizens left the UK. If immigration continues at these levels, our population will grow by 7.6 million by 2031 - equivalent to seven times the population of Birmingham, of which nearly 90% will be due to immigration."
Goodness me, eh?
It seems that the Conservative party have been listening. There is likely to be a General Election in the UK in May this year, and Michael Howard has put immigration at the centre of his party's strategy by advocating "controlled immigration" - putting quotas on the number of immigrants allowed into the country, including Asylum Seekers.
"Some people have said this is racist. It is not. It is common sense."
What about the Labour party? What do they think?
Despite the fact that a Conservative win in the election looks about as likely as a snowstorm in hell, it looks very much like the government are running scared, and see this latest move by the Conservatives as revealing a vulnerability. The Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, today announced new policies to speed up the removal of failed asylum seekers, and to limit the number of migrant dependents arriving in the country.
It's probably the man on the street again. Or white van man. His views are important:
No to Europe. No to the Euro. No to Asylum Seekers. Yes to the "war on terror".
Any politician worth his salt wants their vote.
Labour and the Conservatives aren't about to let the fact that these people are also the core constituent of the UK Independence Party and the BNP get in the way of lobbying for their vote.
What's the policy of the British National Party on Asylum Seekers then?
"On current demographic trends, we, the native British people, will be an ethnic minority in our own country within sixty years. To ensure that this does not happen, and that the British people retain their homeland and identity, we call for an immediate halt to all further immigration, the immediate deportation of criminal and illegal immigrants, and the introduction of a system of voluntary resettlement whereby those immigrants who are legally here will be afforded the opportunity to return to their lands of ethnic origin assisted by a generous financial incentives both for individuals and for the countries in question. We will abolish the 'positive discrimination' schemes that have made white Britons second-class citizens. We will also clamp down on the flood of 'asylum seekers', all of whom are either bogus or can find refuge much nearer their home countries"
[Source: The BNP website]
In case you aren't familiar with them, the BNP are a racist party from the "England for the English" school of thought. Polite society usually only notices them when we are appalled to see that they have won seat on a local council somewhere we would never dare to go. Places like the Isle of Dogs, or Bradford. More amusingly, they've also been in the news recently because they accidentally hired a black DJ for their Christmas Party. It caused a lot of confusion and a few walkouts. A BNP spokesman made the immortal public comment that "The DJ sounded white on the phone".... we should give these people as much publicity as possible so as many people as possible can see them for the racist goons that they are. For God's sake don't ban them.... anyway.... I digress.
That immigration policy isn't exactly a million miles away from Michael Howard's comment about the number of immigrants entering the country each year being equivalent to the population of Peterborough, is it? Not far enough away, certainly. He's playing on the same fears - that our green and pleasant land is being overrun by foreigners.
What's a refugee then?
The UNHCR's 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is generally considered to be the key definition (although I see that Michael Howard thinks it is outdated and needs replacing). It outlines what a refugee is, what their rights are, and what a state's legal obligations towards them are.
"A refugee is a person who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country..."The UNHCR reckons that there are currently about 17m people worldwide "of concern".
The UNHCR includes Asylum Seekers in their definition of 'refugee'. These are generally people who are fleeing persecution and need our help and protection. How many is too many? Where do you draw the line? Is there even a line to be drawn?
Britain is at the top of the table in terms of asylum applications, but we aren't talking hundreds of thousands of people:
1. Britain -> 61,100 (mainly from Somalia, Iraq, China, Zimbabwe, Iran & Turkey)
2. USA -> 60,700 (China, Colombia, Mexico, Haiti, Indonesia)
3. France -> 59,800 (Turkey, China, DR Congo, Russian Federation, Algeria)
4. Germany -> 50,600 (Turkey, Serbia & Montenegro, Iraq, Russian Federation, China)
5. Austria -> 32,400 (Russian Federation, Turkey, India, Serbia & Montenegro, Afghanistan)
6. Canada -> 31,900 (Pakistan, Mexico, Colombia, China, Costa Rica)
Source: UNHCR 2003
The Home Office tells us that in 2003, the UK allowed 139, 675 people the right to stay. 66,000 of those were joining their families, 29,000 were allowed to stay after working in the country, and 21,000 were asylum cases. So from the 61,100 cases, we allowed 21,000 to stay. My aren't we generous? (and let's not ask too many questions about why one of the largest countries of origin for asylum applicants to the UK is Iraq, eh? What might they be trying to run away from at the moment? Are they seeking asylum from the USA?)
This is a political football: being seen to be "tough on immigration" is a vote winner, but it obscures the reasons why some of these people are trying to enter our country....
Not 6 months ago, Michael Howard stood on the stage at his Party Conference and boldy made political mileage out of his family background (his Jewish father escaped from Romania before the start of the Second World War, fleeing persecution by the Nazis):
"Britain has always offered a home to genuine refugees and to families who want to work hard," he said. "I know - my family was one of them."
So what would have happened if we had immigration quotas back then, eh? Would Mr. Howard have been packed off back into the hands of the Germans and told to try again next year because this year's quotas were full?
I've had a bit of my faith in the 'Great British Public' restored since their spontaneous generosity in the wake of the Tsunami embarrassed the government into digging deeper into their pockets to produce a bit more cash. Let's hope that the same thing happens again, and that we don't let 'The Man in the Street' or any of these idiot politicians close our borders and our hearts against people who really need our help.
*for reference this post is brought to you from my living room sofa, my bed, and finally from my desk. I suppose I should also credit the swimming pool - not because my laptop is *that* good, but because that's where I was when I chewed over some of this stuff as I ploughed up and down....
Wireless is good - although I'll admit that although we were in the same room for once, C. may not have found my conversation scintillating this evening. Especially when blogger blew up halfway through my first draft of this.... grrrr.