Monday, January 24, 2005

Howard - Pulling up the Drawbridge

"Anyone reading the British press might assume that the UK is in the front-line of dealing with migrants and refugees. This is wrong."

Michael Howard launched the new Tory plans on immigration today, without listening to the views of Tony Baldry, a Tory MP who serves as chair of the International Development Committee.

This has the feel of cheap and nasty politics, born of the desperation at Tory Central Office that May might prove even more disastrous for the party than the 2001 election. We expect this stuff from the BNP, that's most of their ideology, but for a mainstream political party to grab hold of this issue and use it so cynically is simply dangerous. Of course, the greatest irony is that the man pulling away the safety net is the one who was saved by it before World War II. Michael Howard's own family were given asylum by Britain after fleeing Transylvania.

Howard was on BBC Radio Five this morning telling the audience that Britain can't take all the world's refugees. Michael - we don't. According to the UNHCR, at the end of 2003, Britain offered safe haven to 2.8% of the world's refugees, who make up a whopping 0.4% of the British population. Bear in mind that we are the fourth largest economy in the world, yet we only rank 9th in Europe for refugees per capita. Immigration is good for the country - people born outside the UK contribute 10% more in terms of tax than they consume in terms of public services and benefits. Many come to this country as graduates and with other professional qualifications, ready to take on jobs that pay well and pay more than their share of the tax burden (90% of UK employers would solve their skills shortages by taking on asylum-seekers). Again, I refer readers to the Refugee Council's excellent Press Myths page, which also includes the quote from Tony Baldry, the Tory (yes, Tory) that started this piece.

Mr Baldry is right, of course. Many of the tabloids seem to specialise in graphic headlines knocking asylum-seekers. Remember the infamous Sun headline reporting that asylum seekers had been killing and eating swans in the Royal Parks? According to MediaGuardian, this story was a complete fiction - the police had no record of it and no-one had been arrested. If you look at the headlines of some newspapers (I mean you at the Daily Mail and Express), you would think that there was little else going on.

Bluntly, of course, we need more immigrants. Twenty years ago, there were six taxpayers supporting every pensioner. Now there are only four and within a few decades, it will be down to two workers for each pensioner. Unless we want to face cutting benefits or increasing tax, we need more people paying tax.

This is one of the few items on the political agenda where the Tories have always had a historic lead, but it wasn't an issue for two decades prior to 2000. At the end of 2004, MORI polls showed that it was an important issue for around a quarter of those likely to vote and a YouGov poll for the Telegraph in October had 52% of respondents citing it as an important problem (behind the Labour strengths of pensions, poverty and health). 30% of the respondents said that the Tories had the best policies on immigration, twice the number who backed Labour. However, when it came to asking people about things that mattered most to their family, immigration was well down the list, well behind pensions, health, inflation and crime. Credit to UK Polling Report for the information, links and the interesting point that upwards of two thirds of people disapprove of government policy in this area.

The Tories want most asylum claims to be processed overseas - perhaps they mean that it will work like Australia, who accept refugees from UN-sponsored camps, or perhaps they expect the victims of torture to struggle into British embassies and consulates around the globe and complete forms in triplicate, or perhaps they expect other countries to host our refugees for us. Those that do make it into this country can look forward to being placed in camps - although Howard studiously avoided mentioning where these camps were likely to be sited (not in Tory marginal seats, I suspect).

The cap on asylum-seekers is plainly unjust. We've had a long tradition of helping people in trouble and welcoming them to our country. Many of those who come will eventually return to their countries of origin, but large numbers stay. There will be a cap set by Parliament on the number of asylum applications allowed - not the number granted, just the numbers who are allowed to apply. This will politicise something that should be kept apolitical and I doubt that there will be much of a political argument to increase it. Early figures suggested that around 20,000 applicants would be allowed, but this has already been cut back to 15,000. I'd also remind you that this is about asylum, not legal immigration.

Whatever the final total, if you are the 15050 person to apply, you will be turned away, no matter what your case. It doesn't matter if you are fleeing genocidal maniacs wielding clubs, you don't get a chance. It wouldn't matter if Aung San Suu Kyi puts in an appearance at Dover - she's going back home. The tragedy is that those who would be affected won't have the profile to get them around the system.

Let's be charitable and assume that Immigration don't split up families who happen to straddle the 15,000 barrier, but let's set another scene here. Imagine that you are a pro-democracy campaigner in a repressive country (without the profile of a Mandela) and you manage to get yourself onto a British Airways direct flight from your capital city to Heathrow. When you present yourself at Immigration, complete with torture scars and try to claim asylum, the new border guards will tell you that as you are the 18,000th applicant this year, you cannot stay, so you will have to get on the next plane back to wherever it is you came from. Even if you face renewed torture and possible murder, you have to go back as our doors will be closed to you.

That's the situation that the Tories are proposing - a proposal led by the son of an asylum seeker. If this is the real policy, then it is simply immoral. If they don't mean this and the proposed cap will actually be more flexible, then the whole policy is a sham, a desperate pandering to base political instincts and a close relative of the 1964 Smethwick Tory campaign slogan

'If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.'

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