Issue 225 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1998 Copyright © Socialist ReviewAsylum seekers
Last month saw a spate of ugly newspaper attacks on Kosovan refugees who are trying to find asylum in this country. The London Evening Standard blazed a trail with scare stories about a 'crime wave' sweeping London which, it claimed, is caused by a huge Kosovan influx. The only evidence of this, however, seems to have been an increase in pickpockets near Buckingham Palace over the summer months - hardly conclusive proof.
In Barking the local paper splashed the headline 'Close To The Limit' across its front page, along with a story of how Kosovans were draining local resources. But how great is this influx?
In the first half of this year less than 1,000 Kosovans per month claimed asylum in Britain. They form about one quarter of all those seeking asylum here. However, of all those who have applied for asylum status only about 35 percent have actually been given leave to stay. This is less than 17,000 people, by no means an overwhelming number.
Most of the Kosovan refugees have been shunted out of areas like Westminster to specific boroughs on the outskirts of London, notably Brent and Barking and Dagenham. They have been put in accommodation that is near impossible to rent because of bad facilities, so it can seem like a large concentration in some places.
This plight is made worse by the lack of resources - Kosovans have to queue up daily for food vouchers that they can take to supermarkets. These vouchers amount to less than welfare benefits and they receive no other allowance. It is also illegal for them to seek employment. Those staying in hostel accommodation are not allowed to remain inside during the day, so there are Kosovans wandering the streets with absolutely nothing to do.
Most of the asylum seekers are young men who are trying to escape death in the army in Serbia. Families are also attempting to send young girls on their own. It costs between £1,500 and £2,000 to secure a place on a lorry out of the war zone. But it is ordinary people, not the rich, who are forced to undertake this journey.
It takes many days travelling in darkness, often with no food or sanitation. When they arrive they are dumped at service stations and have no opportunity to claim asylum status as they enter Britain. This means they are not eligible for benefits and they have to rely on charitable contributions from local people. According to one refugee organisation in Barking there has been a good response from local people donating clothes.
The Kosovan refugees are not a massive drain on resources. The annual cost of asylum seekers in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham is £300,000, a tiny slice of the coun cil's budget. It is convenient for the council to try and scapegoat one of the most needy groups in its area. There is definitely a lack of resources in local funding, but that has nothing to do with refugees. The fact that more people are now in need of housing, healthcare and educational facilities only highlights the need for adequate funding for all people.
Jack Straw's policy for accommodating Kosovan refugees does not even acknowledge these problems. His white paper plans to split up the Kosovan groups and disperse them throughout the country, thereby spreading the cost of their support. But this will only serve to isolate them more, dividing up friends and families, and will make coordinating care nearly impossible. Straw has also announced that 91 wounded children and their families in Kosovo will not be allowed into this country because they cannot pay for their care.
The response of New Labour to the bloodshed in Kosovo was to threaten more violence. It is quite happy to pour money into armaments that, if used, would only compound the problems in the area. But it is not concerned enough about the people fleeing the war to offer them the support they need.