Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

How We Scapegoated Asylum-Seekers

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

How We Scapegoated Asylum-Seekers

Article excerpt

How do you stop a "flood" of refugees reaching Britain? Make the lives of the persecuted and poor intolerable. Then twist the screw tighter.

An Algerian calls from the Campsfield internment centre in Oxfordshire with a snippet of news from a brutal social crisis. He's a member of the Islamic opposition who escaped when the war between fundamentalist and government death squads got too hot. He applied for asylum, was refused, went on the run and was caught. He will make a profit for Group 4 until he is deported. The Home Office has told the Algerian authorities he's on his way back. He expects a welcoming committee.

Can I help? "I doubt it," I think. "I'll give it a go," I say. "May I use your name?" God dwells in the detail in journalism. Proper names, dates, places turn what would be unprintably vague meanders into hard, specific pieces. But I can't write anything. Publicity would further antagonise the Algerian authorities, he replies. I sigh and reflect that asylum-seekers might have been designed by a committee of the conservative and new Labour patties, mandarins and the Mail as the model scapegoat for snobs to throw to the mob. They're too frightened to bleat even when they're beaten by the righteous.

On the radio, William Hague and Barbara Roche are having a competition. Roche, the new immigration minister, is learning quickly that a smart palming of the race card from the bottom of the deck can turn censorious eyes from the collapse of her department. She tells parliament of the "dreadful burden" that cozening asylum-seekers lay on gullible taxpayers. The burden is l9p per citizen per week. It would be lighter if either Michael Howard or Jack Straw had attended to his duties and cleared the backlog of 100,000 unresolved cases. Both might have tackled the failure of the computers at the Home Office's Immigration and Nationality Department to do anything so technical as work. Howard might not have sacked immigration officers, Straw might have thought for a couple of seconds before allowing an office relocation programme that threw a confused department into chaos. Both might have ensured that their underlings stopped issuing inadequate and contemptuous refusals of asylum which can be challenged for years in every available tribunal (and are thus a positive incitement to economic migrants to apply).

But the great advantage of the scapegoat is that the beast takes the blame for the blunders of others. In theory, I know the history of the powerful's manipulation of prejudice well. Yet it is still stunning to see, in your own time and land, the weak persecuted as master criminals, while the inciters of racial hatred and mere incompetents vibrate with their sole sympathy: self-pity.

When Siemens, the German information geniuses, did to the Passport Office what it had already done to the asylum service, no one denounced "bogus holidaymakers". Straw apologised in person to citizens queuing at Petty France and the system was made to work sharpish. What would an apology to asylum-seekers be like? It would take days to deliver.

Hague meets the Roche challenge on the Today programme. A political paradise of lower taxes and lavish public services could be ours if only we stopped spending a fortune mollycoddling those who seek sanctuary. The sly creeps are so backbreakingly burdensome that their very presence is all that prevents us living on the Big Rock candy Mountain.

Last year, Hague's MPs opposed the government's ferocious asylum bill. Along with the Liberal Democrats, they warned that ministers' sickly caveat -- "but we have nothing against genuine refugees" -- was a lie. The ports would be closed in April 2000 to honest refugees as well as economic migrants. The drivers of lorries, cars, planes, boats and trains would throw them out to escape fines of [pounds]2,000 a passenger. ("Anne Frank would have been turned away" if Blair had been in power, shouted one former Thatcherite. …

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