Time to Shut the Door on Asylum Seekers; in the Jet Age Vlaw on Refugees Is Totally Archaic

Article excerpt

Byline: BRUCE ANDERSON

BEHIND the walls of Rochester Prison in Kent, a group of 13 asylum seekers has gone on hunger strike. They are accusing the British Government of maltreating them and of reneging on its obligations to provide political asylum to bona fide applicants.

They claim that the Government is deliberately spinning out the legal procedures, thereby inflicting unnecessary suffering on them and others like them.

They have a legitimate grievance, at least under existing law. Nearly 50 years ago the UK signed a UN convention obliging us to provide political asylum to anyone with a well-grounded fear of persecution for political or religious reason. Most of the asylum seekers at Rochester Prison could probably make such a claim, and no one could possibly want them to die of starvation. But there is a problem. Half the world could make an equally strong claim.

The Home Office has tried to find a compromise and to restrict the flow of asylum seekers by weeding out `economic migrants'; those who are attracted to Britain by the opportunities it offers, or at any rate by the Social Security benefits. But that approach is doubly flawed.

In the first place, it is almost impossible to adjudicate in particular cases. How is a British immigration officer - or a judge - supposed to decide whether a given asylum seeker is telling the truth? The authorities accuse him of economic migrancy, to which he responds with an involved account of local conditions in a faraway country about which we know little.

Every such case is a jurisprudential nightmare. The second difficulty is more fundamental. Even if the bogus claimants were weeded out, there would still be far too many genuine applicants. Anyone living in Algeria, Iraq or Iran could claim a well grounded fear of persecution; that is 100 million people right away. So could half the population of black Africa: another 100 million. So could every single mainland Chinese: around a billion of them.

We have refused to grant entry rights to the five million Hong Kong Chinese, who have historic links with this country, for a perfectly sensible reason; we do not want to be swamped by immigrants. But our existing commitments could enable us to be swamped by tens of millions of people with legitimate grounds for claiming asylum.

Political asylum is a 19th-century concept. In an age when travel was difficult while the average refugee was an heroic individual who had risked his life for democracy and freedom, there were no reasons not to grant asylum. In those days, virtually the entire refugee population in London could be accommodated in the British Museum reading room.

But now, with television to broadcast the attractions of life in Britain and universal air travel, so that London is only a few hours' journey from the most benighted regions on Earth, the temptation to seek refugee status is overwhelming. In the age of the airliner we have a law dating from the age of the stagecoach.

There are those who would argue that Britain has a longstanding commitment to tolerance and openness, that if we were to restrict the right of asylum we would be repudiating our traditions and heritage. …