23 April 1999
The Asylum and Immigration Bill gives the lie to New Labour's concern for the Kosovo refugees, argues Suke Wolton
The government's current war against Yugoslavia is justified on 'humanitarian' grounds, with the supposed aim of saving the people of Kosovo. In bombing the 'evil' Milosevic Blair poses as the 'good' knight. But the war has only increased the number of refugees - and New Labour's treatment of refugees in Britain gives the lie to their Kosovo crusade.
All of 250 refugees from Kosovo are coming to Britain, despite the hundreds of thousands in need. Most of the refugees are sheltering in camps in Albania, Montenegro and Macedonia. Any of those refugees who try to come to Britain on their own initiative will find humanitarianism in short supply when they get here. With its new Asylum and Immigration Bill the British government has effectively torn up the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees.
The convention enabled people who had a 'fear of persecution' on grounds of political affiliation, race, religion, nationality or membership of a social group to seek refuge in foreign countries. But today New Labour does not want refugees from third world civil wars turning up in Britain, no matter how much torture and persecution they have experienced. The new bill going through parliament is intended to deter people from seeking asylum in the UK.
Since the 1968 Immigration Act, the British authorities have used the imposition of visa requirements to prevent certain people from coming to Britain. Last October, for example, in an attempt to stem the escape of Roma gypsies, visa requirements were imposed on all Slovakians. Visa requirements will be facilitated in the new bill with new powers granted to overseas Entry Clearance Officers. More importantly, if an asylum seeker has already been refused 'leave to enter', under these new powers they will automatically become an 'illegal immigrant' when they apply for asylum in Britain. UNHCR has complained that the trend to visa control may breach the 1951 Convention (see UNHCR, European Series, Vol 1 No 3, 1995).
The policy of deterrence continues when asylum seekers arrive in Britain. The 1971 Immigration Act brought in the power to detain 'illegal immigrants', as well as those under examination and those about to be deported. In practice today, this allows the government to lock up about 850 asylum seekers, often for many months at a time. There is no presumption of liberty if they request bail and the Home Office requests sureties of up to 2000 each. Many refugees do not understand why they are in the prison or detention centre and there is no time limit on their imprisonment.
The government plans to expand its detention facilities, and the new bill introduces a new procedure for those in jail. Detainees lose the right to go to court for a bail hearing, instead getting a video link-up to a magistrate. There is no legal aid for representation, meaning that detainees, who often speak very poor English, will have to defend themselves.
The new Human Rights Act, which is supposed to stop the deprivation of liberty, does not cover asylum seekers who have sought 'unauthorised entry' - that is, those without 'leave to enter' or without a passport (which is common for refugees fleeing state persecution). Any asylum seeker caught using a false passport, or obtaining a visa through misrepresentation, will become a criminal under the new bill. Indeed, if the Home Office refuses an asylum application, any mistake made by the asylum seeker in their application will become a criminal offence. There will be no mechanism to verify what an asylum seeker has said to an immigration officer. The Immigration Service does not come under the guidelines of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act and does not have to tape its interviews, despite the fact that disputes often arise later. And there is little provision in the current procedure to account for trauma, long and difficult journeys or simple error in recounting how an asylum seeker came to Britain.
Under the new bill, while the Home Office considers the asylum application, asylum seekers will be housed in cities across Britain, under a new policy of 'dispersal'. The bill states that the secretary of state 'must not have regard to any preference' of the asylum seeker. As well as being separated from friends and family, asylum seekers will be treated as outcasts; denied cash benefits and required to buy their food with vouchers specially issued from the Home Office. The only exception to the 'cashless system' will be 50p a day for children (half a daily bus fare?) and 1 for babies (about six nappies?). The government hopes that increased detention and the introduction of vouchers will end the supposed 'pull factor' of Britain's welfare benefits and increase the policy of deterrence.
Visas, detention without representation, social segregation, criminalisation: this is the humanitarian treatment refugees can expect from Tony Blair's government.
The Kosovo refugees are being used as a testing ground for the new policy: keep the refugees close to the area of conflict, in 'safe zones', and try to deter them from coming to Britain. The 1951 convention remains international law but only on paper; in practice it is gone. The new humanitarianism is about feeling good back home and keeping as many of the victims of the war as far away as possible.
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