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Acceptable Racism, Media Bias and Government Hypocrisy- The Case of Asylum Seekers in Britain

In April 2002 when Amina and her son Mustafa arrived in Britain fleeing persecution from the local militia in Somalia they expected to be helped. Her husband had been thrown in jail and the rest of her family murdered. She wanted to create a new life and be able to support herself and her son. However she was forced into a Bristol hostel where, as she said “I have no privacy and I do not feel safe.”1 Her child was unable to learn English and there wasn’t an interpreter available for her to get vital medical attention for Mustafa. Her application for asylum was rejected by the Home Office.

That a civilized country can send a woman and her child back to Somalia is beyond belief when it has been reported by Amnesty International that there have been “cases of kidnapping as well as detention, and torture or ill-treatment of prisoners. Women and minorities were particularly vulnerable to abuses.” in the war-torn country. 2 Cases like this are unfortunately familiar.

Amina, like so many others, has been branded a “bogus Asylum seeker” or an “economic immigrant”, just one making up the “flood” of refugees, “the invasion” of our country. This appalling label and our disgusting policy towards the lucky few who manage to penetrate “fortress Europe” is scapegoating of the most hideous kind. The British government as well as the characteristically sycophantic media have worked hand in hand to portray asylum seekers as a danger, terrorists, and most humiliatingly a burden on our taxes.
We are all familiar with the constant and often hysterical attacks refugees come under in our tabloid press. Headlines such as “End This Asylum Seeker Madness” and “Asylum Seeker Cheats on the Loose” are now commonplace. They help to instill the fear that we are under siege from these aliens and constantly blurring the boundary between the terms ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘asylum seekers’ so now they are now one and the same.

However its not just the Mail, the Express and the Sun whipping up this racist fervour. A survey of the Telegraph, the Guardian and the Independent, two of which are widely considered liberal, has disturbing findings. 61% of articles about asylum seekers concern criminal activities perpetrated by refugees. Themes like the effects of immigration on UK population figures, poverty/ income disparity in countries of origin, effects of the arms trade, effects of Western economic policies in sending countries, and comparisons of UK refugee intake with Third World countries go almost unmentioned in all three newspapers. In only 6% of articles are asylum seekers themselves given a voice and this is almost always limited to one sentence responses to new government policies. Most shocking of all is that 80% of all articles mention “bogus asylum seekers” which by all standards is a tiny issue.3 Surely more important are the reasons for the influx of refugees which is rarely, if ever, covered.

This frenzied demagoguery which is mainly to blame for the soaring attacks and crimes against refugees (which have always far out numbered crimes by refugees) is supported whole heartedly by the government. In response to the race riots in the North, David Blunkett, British Home secretary, said: "We have norms of acceptability, and those who come into our home - for that is what it is - should accept those norms just as we would have to do if we went elsewhere." When Le Pen got a massive number of votes in the French elections he observed that “The way to confront fascism is to be tough on asylum.” This blaming of the victims for the crimes against them is appalling, would we blame the victim of a rape for wearing a short skirt. These comments by Mr Blunkett earned him the coveted title of the BNP’s “favourite British politician” as declared on their website.4 They have since won 18 council seats in Britain. The problem of racism is not a small one. Elona, an 18-year-old from Kosovo says : “Sometimes people say racist things, on the bus or in the street – in school as well. But we had no choice – coming here, or staying there and dying. I just hope that one day people will understand, and will see that they were wrong.”5

It doesn’t look like we’re moving in anyway towards a more tolerant society. In fact Blunkett’s new plans show the most horrific move toward even more despicable treatment of these innocent families. He plans to introduce identity cards for them only which will not only be a grave violation of their human rights but also make them identifiable to racists (Mr Blunkett helping out his favourite BNP-Nazi thugs again). Asylum seekers will still only receive 75% of typical income support. The introduction of a horrific new 3-tiered detention system is proposed which will incarcerate innocent families in Induction centres, Accommodation centres and then, for the ones deemed unsuitable to stay, Removal centres. This proposal is a flagrant breach of asylum seekers basic human rights. In our country we now offer them less rights than convicted criminals and regularly lock up whole families.6

The new Asylum Bill working its way through parliament has been condemned as “devastating” by a number of organisations concerned with refugee’s rights. As David Blunkett informs us the new bill proposes a "Single tier Tribunal[that] will provide an effective and early independent remedy to those seeking to challenge official decisions.”7 Blunkett’s aim to cut down on asylum seeker’s right to an appeal is worrying especially as almost a quarter of rejected applications are turned over on appeal. As Amnesty International’s Kate Allen put it: “When initial decision-making is so poor, the appeals process can be the only barrier between a refugee and the secret police waiting to torture them on their return."8

Most telling of all, the Labour government, in another breach of the Geneva Convention have set a compulsory minimum figure of deportations at 30,000.9 So immigrants will no longer have their case judged on its merits but simply decided upon to fit government figures. It is also necessary for all immigrants to apply for asylum within 24 hours of arriving or they are automatically not able to claim and do not receive benefits. This leaves many families destitute with no way of gaining an income.

The most laughable and ridiculous of the new policies is to give all new asylum seekers a test on Britain. So when a woman fleeing persecution with her two young children arrives in a foreign land confused and not being able to speak the language, we’re going to send her home if she doesn’t know who Vaughan Williams is. I have only a vague idea who Vaughan Williams is so I guess that makes me not suitable to be English. The truth is that for a society to be truly multicultural there can be no test of “Britishness”, especially not an outdated and pompous view that to qualify as English you must have a wide-ranging knowledge of British composers.

The case of asylum seekers in Britain presents a example of vicious scapegoating. This political tactic has been seen before and it is disturbing, but unfortunately not surprising, to see it rear its head again. The Aborigines of Australia, The McCarthyite Witchhunts and Nazi Germany’s extermination of the Jews and Gypsies are all extreme examples of scapegoating in fairly recent history. Governments pick a vulnerable section of society on which to blame all the current problems (in this case: NHS, Transport, Schools).

If we are to combat the disgraceful treatment of refugees and stop our main political parties swinging so far right on this issue they are treading on the BNP’s toes we need to dispel the myths that are prevalent amongst the population.

Firstly, the idea we are undergoing a “flood” of immigrants. We only have to look beyond official policies and our corporate-owned media to see that this is ludicrous. As a country we are obliged by a number of treaties to ensure we receive and consider all applications for asylum. Despite what the papers say about “soft-touch Britain” we are ranked eighth in per capita received in Western Europe. If we look further afield we find that third world countries, who have nowhere near the resources that Britain boast take 70% of the world’s refugees. Pakistan hosts 3.3 million asylum seekers, while Guinea has over 3 million refugees in a population of only 7 million.10 It is also interesting to see the government hail Fulham Primary School as the second most improved school in the country with no mention of the fact that a third of the children there are asylum seekers and 34 languages are spoken. So much for the perceived swamping of our public services and burden on our schools.11

There are other serious misconceptions fuelled by our hysterical media. A MORI poll found that most people estimated the amount an asylum seeker receives in benefits each week is £110. The true figure is a measly £37 putting all asylum seekers below the poverty line.12 Oxfam reports that a questionnaire found that of Britain’s asylum seeker aid organisations: “85% reported that asylum seekers experience hunger, 95% reported that asylum seekers could not afford to buy shoes or clothes, and 80% that their clients were not able to maintain good health.”13 We still do not allow asylum seekers to work to support themselves while their claims are processed.

The idea that most asylum seekers are bogus is also seriously misjudged. Over half of the claims made after the appeals stage in 2001 were eventually successful even in the harsh government claims system. Government figures from 2001 show that the top four countries from which asylum seekers flee are Zimbabwe, Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan. All these countries have abysmal human rights records, as we hardly need to be reminded in the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan. Oxfam report: “Fluctuations in numbers seeking asylum in the UK reflect increases in conflict and persecution around the world”.14 This means that most of the increase in asylum seekers over the past few years will be legitimate.

Britain has recently sold arms to all of the 5 top countries of origin of asylum seekers from before 2001 fuelling the conflicts and repression that create the immigrants.15 The UK earns more money from the arms trade in developing countries than it gives in aid. The UK alone has a arms industry worth $4.6 billion, 72% of which goes to the Middle East and North Africa, two of the most volatile and dangerous regions on the planet, riddled with repression and conflict, and the biggest producers of refugees. We have also increased our weapons exports to Indonesia from “£2 million in 2000 to more than £40 million in 2002...despite the gross pattern of human rights violations“. As Norman Lamb, MP, said: “The Government has been hypocritical on this issue…and British companies are profiting from it. There’s blood on the government’s hands over this.”16

When the case of asylum seekers is put in recent context the government policies seem to reek even more of hypocrisy. We only have to look to 2001 when Jack Straw was home secretary. He refused asylum to an Iraqi fleeing from Saddam’s brutal regime after detention and torture . This was justified by the Home Office, who said: “ Mr Straw is aware that Iraq, and in particular the Iraqi security forces , would only convict and sentence a person in the courts with the provision of proper jurisdiction,” so that “ you could expect to receive a fair trial under an independent and properly constituted judiciary.”17 If Saddam Hussein’s regime is not considered repressive and dangerous enough to justify a successful application for asylum you wonder just where the 50% of applicants who were granted asylum found a dictator evil enough.

The recent terrorist panic has allowed the government to erode the rights of asylum seekers even more. They claim to be defending us by clamping down on asylum numbers and incarcerating entire families. This claim is just another in a long line of lies meant to scare us into a racist mindset. 88 million people pass through our borders each year and only 80,000 of these were asylum seekers. The other 87,920,000 apparently merit no attention.18

It is also interesting to notice that the increase in international immigration coincides with the increasing global interference of the World Bank and the IMF as well as our own ‘immigrant’ corporations exploiting third world labour. As David Blunkett himself puts it: “Globalisation has changed the world we live in. Our economies are more interconnected;capital movements do not respect national boundaries.”19 He is right, our multinationals, the IMF and the World Bank go anywhere they please. They degrade human rights, exploit labour, destroy economys and plunder national wealth causing huge uprootng of civilians. 8 million people are now displaced in Africa alone. These corporations are our economic immigrants. The difference ,however, is that they are more powerful than the governments of the countries they travel to and they can truly exploit them. Many asylum seekers that travel to Britain today are merely following the wealth that is flowing freely from across the third world into Europe. This is a big topic and merits far more attention and analysis, but it certainly cannot be ignored as it is in our media today.

Tony Blair told us that he was fighting his endless War on Terror so everyb
ody could be “free to raise a family in love and hope. Free to earn a living and be rewarded by your own efforts. Free not to bend your knee to any man in fear.” This lofty rhetoric doesn’t seem to apply when refering to asylum seekers. I suppose, for them, raising a family in jail instead of “in love and hope” is acceptable. I guess everyone but asylum seekers should be “free to earn a living”.20 I guess when Tony sells arms to dictators with abysmal human rights records, their civilians are totally “free not to bend their knee to any man in fear.” It is when our actions in the name of freedom over the past few years are looked at side by side with our treatment of asylum seekers that they become truly hollow and pathetic and the full extent of our Government’s hypocrisy becomes clear.

The irony about all of this is that several studies have found that the influx of asylum seekers could be beneficial for the UK. Britain has a significant problem with the fact that its population growth is slowing down and it was recommended in a U.N report that “replacement immigration” be used to combat the problem. However this idea was dismissed because the number of refugees were just too small.21 Another report found that in 1999/2000 migrants “contributed £31.2 billion in taxes while consuming £28.8 billion in benefits and services.”22 Immigrants make up large proportions of our public sector jobs and play important roles in maintaining our health system as well as other vital areas. Of course, none of this is even mentioned in our mainstream press so requires no attention.

The skewered scapegoatiing our government is using and the regurgitated propaganda spewed by our ever reliable media must be stopped. If we are to be truly multicultural and truly honest with ourselves about our own failings we must stop the demonisation of asylum seekers. We must realise that this issue goes far beyond the debate about how high to build the walls and how best to skirt around international law. We have to question why so many people feel they need to flee their home and we have to start to examine and question our own activities across the planet. We have to aim for a society where it is considered a privilege, not a chore to care for a desperate family and we, like Fulham primary school’s head teacher, consider our society’s achievements are “not in spite of, but in large part because of, the presence of so many [people] from the most war-torn corners of the globe”.23

1. www.refugee-action.org
2. Amnesty International 2002 report available at www.amnesty.org
3. Medialens media alert December 8th 2003. By Matthew Randal. Available at www.medialens.org
4. The Guardian. ‘The Wrong Way Round’ by Gary Younge. Sept 8th 2003. Available at www.guardian.co.uk
5. Quoted on Oxfam website. www.oxfamb.org
6. Report available at www.homeoffice.gov.uk
7. Quoted from Home Office press release 27th October 2003 available at www.homeoffice.gov.uk
8. Quoted on www.refugeecouncil.org.uk17th December 2003
9. From www.defend-asylum.org
10. www.oxfamb.org
11. ‘Racism’ by Hassan Mahamdallie. Appears in the book “Anti-Imperialism: A guide to the movement” p.45 published by Bookmarks Press.
12. www.oxfamb.org
13. www.oxfamb.org
14. www.oxfamb.org
15. Medialens media alert December 8th 2003. By Matthew Randal. Available at www.medialens.org
16. Amnesty International. www.controlarms.org
17. Quoted from Noam Chomsky’s “Hegemony or Survival” pg. 130.
18. www.oxfam.org
19. David Blunkett article for the Evening Standard 16th April 2003. Available at www.homeoffice.gov.uk
20. Blairs speech to congress. Available at www.pm.gov.uk
21. Medialens media alert December 8th 2003. By Matthew Randal. Available at www.medialens.org
22. www.oxfamb.org
23. ‘Racism’ by Hassan Mahamdallie. Appears in the book “Anti-Imperialism: A guide to the movement” p.45 published by Bookmarks Press.

Thom Costello, 16, 2003            

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