Lucia Hodgson asks why the debates surrounding immigration and asylum are ignoring the human realities
The past few weeks have seen our prospective leaders battling it out over policy details, every last penny of their budgets, and the pressing question of political and parliamentary reform.
But there is one subject that craves immediate attention: immigration and asylum, considered by the British public to be the second most important issue, behind the economy, of this general election.
It is hardly surprising that politicians would rather be seen supporting a traditionally British (preferably fledgling) business, rather than photographed at an asylum centre, trying to find out what they can do to improve conditions, given how little effect the latter would have on their poll ratings.
They all agree, loudly and publicly, on the need to secure the economic recovery and to lower class sizes, but not one of them seems to be interested in developing a more humane asylum system.
The consensus among the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative Parties is that the immigration system needs to change, but by change they don’t mean that it should be made fairer — by, for instance instituting a fairer weekly allowance for single women and their children, or a better standard of living — they mean that fewer immigrants should be allowed into Britain, and those who are here should have a less obvious presence in cities and towns across the country.
The tragic reality of our asylum system made itself abundantly clear when, in March of this year, a Russian family committed suicide — jumping from the fifteenth floor of their Red Road flat in Glasgow. Having already had their benefits removed, Serge Serykh, along with his wife and child, died on the day they were told they must vacate their flat.
It was convenient for the media that, days after the suicide, it emerged that Serge had suffered from mental health problems. As the case faded away, the papers all came to the conclusion that asylum policy wasn’t to blame after all because Serge was given indefinite leave to remain in Canada, but, after accusing the authorities there of various subversive plots, left in 2007.
On reaching Britain, the family were placed in the Red Road estate. The family found themselves amongst hundreds of asylum seekers left in the flats; a sort of purgatory for those awaiting government ruling on their futures. It is no wonder that the area has been nicknamed The United Nations of Hell. And in fact the flats, synonymous with urban destitution, are now facing demolition.
On March 14, a demonstration was held in Glasgow in support of asylum seekers’ rights, with the Serykh family tragedy acting as a catalyst for this event. Over two hundred people marched from the Red Road estate to George Square with banners and placards.
One young woman from Gambia attended the protest with her children. She explained to me what problems she faced living in the flats. She said that she often spent nights piled into other friend’s apartments because the area is so unsafe. As a result of a government funding cut for asylum seeker support, she and her family have to survive on less than £50 a week. She described her struggle to maintain even a bare minimum standard of living on this amount. Her case has been rejected by the appeals tribunal and she is now simply waiting for the knock on the door from the deportation officials.
It has been all too easy for our political leaders to draw a cast-iron curtain of indifference over the immigration debate. And it is, therefore, just as easy for the general public to buy into the stereotypes that immigrants and asylum seekers want to avoid working, or can’t speak English, or are showered with cash, or all of the above.
A government survey in February showed that 77% of British people want to see immigration reduced, and 50% of men and 52% of women want to see it reduced by “a lot”. The recent influx of Eastern European labourers has increased fears that immigration threatens British jobs and wages. This fear — which disregards that fact that more than one million Britons live and work in other EU countries — further intensifies hostility towards those most in need of fair and compassionate treatment, especially in a time of rising unemployment.
The uniformity of opinion within the three main Westminster parties has given credence to the claims of the far-right. The British National Party unveiled its manifesto last week with a pledge to halt any further immigration from Muslim countries, and developed this policy on the preposterous assertion that indigenous British people will be in a minority by 2050. The sound and the fury of the ultra-right began to dominate the immigration debate some years ago and those who have had the opportunity to stem the tide of anti-immigrant rhetoric have failed to do so.
Last week, the BBC’s flagship news programme Panorama addressed the possibility that the United Kingdom is becoming overcrowded and, despite its bleak predictions, managed to remain relatively free of hyperbole. Nonetheless, it added strings to the bows of those who wish to take aim at vulnerable new residents in Britain.
Tales of wrongly detained torture victims, humiliating procedural checks and general neglect slide under the radar in favour of more crowd-pleasing talk about points systems and population caps.
After the Red Road march, the Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees stated that “the economic situation, the closeness of the general election, and the increasing threat from the BNP can only increase the temptation for politicians to ratchet up the scape-goating of asylum seekers.” This prediction has been proven correct, as the leaders’ debates have been characterised by rampant populism — the operative words have unquestionably been “cutting” and “decreasing”.
The dark side of this debate has been in the spotlight for too long. It shouldn’t be about how many people are here and what they cost. We are not talking about the national deficit. Immigrants and asylum seekers are not abstract numbers. There needs to be a calm and rational debate about what the best model for an ethical immigration system is. That will begin when public opinion is no longer dictated by a tiny, hate-filled minority, which knows only how to spread distrust and disorder.