As Asylum Seekers Surge, British Beg to Differ ; an Influx of Refugees Seeking a Better Standard of Living Has Western European Governments Looking for Tougher Controls

Article excerpt

Some weeks back, I was traveling on the Tube, London's subway system, when I was nudged by a woman in a grubby, dark-brown coat, a well-worn scarf around her olive-skinned face. The child in her arms was swathed so tightly its features were hard to see.

The woman held out a thin, bony hand and I pressed a 1 coin ($1.60) into it. As the woman and child glided away down the crowded compartment, the smartly dressed woman sitting beside me looked up from her Times newspaper. "You shouldn't encourage them," she rebuked. "Anyway, you ought to know they're mostly phony."

It is part of the nation's tradition to offer a haven for refugees fleeing oppression. But the British public is coming to feel victimized by what are perceived as economic, not political, immigrants who see the country as an "easy touch."

In a policy speech on Wednesday, opposition Conservative leader William Hague called for placing new asylum seekers in detention centers until their cases are decided, and deporting them within six weeks if claims are rejected. "This policy will have a significant deterrent effect on those thinking of traveling here without a well- founded case," he said. The government accused Conservatives of attempting to exploit the asylum issue for political gain. If so, they are hardly alone. Anti-immigrant rhetoric paid off for right- wing parties in recent elections in Switzerland and Austria.

Like other wealthy European states, Britain has seen an influx of foreign refugees and asylum seekers. Last year, more than 71,000 people applied for asylum here, a record. They pour into southeast ports from Romania, Slovakia, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Algeria, Afghanistan, and all parts of the former Yugoslavia, as well as Kosovo. British Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted in Parliament recently, "There is a genuine problem with asylum in this country."

The present situation focuses on some 104,000 refugees who are awaiting review of their asylum applications at coastal towns and in London. They are housed fed, and financially supported by local authorities during the process, which can take years. The total national bill this year for care is about 540 million ($853 million).

Popular discontent has prompted the Blair government to adopt tougher measures, including extending an existing law against begging to include asylum seekers who ask for money on the streets. …