Issue 256 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review



Gareth Jenkins looks at the truth behind the latest media scare on refugees, and why people are forced to flee
Asylum seekers will stay Stop benefit cuts

Every night, their faces masked, they move out of their camp at Calais in small groups. They are preparing to 'invade'--to cross the vulnerable stretch of water, made more vulnerable by a tunnel, that separates us from the continent. They are drawn to our shores in the sure and certain knowledge that Britain is a 'soft touch', a land where they can sponge off the state, and where the government is both willingly and helplessly caught up in human rights legislation imposed by Europe.

'They', of course, are asylum seekers, the demonised enemy in a new version of an older racist mythology. 'They' get, according to a Mori survey of people's perceptions, an average of 113 a week (in fact this is way above the true figure of 36.54 per single adult--70 percent of basic Income Support). 'They' are taking our jobs (although, in fact, no asylum seeker is allowed to work for the first six months of their application--and then they seldom find anything other than poorly paid employment). 'They' live in luxury. (In reality, asylum seekers are dispersed once they arrive, some imprisoned in centres, others also 'imprisoned' in run down accommodation, whose owners make vast profits at their expense.) They are also forced to live on vouchers, making them instant targets of racist abuse--or worse.

Perceptions about the numbers seeking asylum are no less mythical. Some 76,040 applications were received by the Home Office in 2000. Yet this is not a large number when you compare it with the total of 900,000 asylum applications made worldwide. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), of the ten main industrialised countries (with just under 500,000 applications between them) Germany was top with 23.5 percent applications, the US second with 18.3 percent and the UK third with 15.1 percent. Yet measured against the 15 countries of the European Union, Britain comes seventh in terms of asylum seekers per 1,000 inhabitants.

These facts are useful because they cut the hysteria down to size. But they do not adequately address broader issues. What causes people to leave their countries? Where do the vast majority of refugees go? Should we accept a difference between 'political' and 'economic' migrants?

The reports of the UNHCR, whose 50th anniversary falls this year, make grim reading. Asylum seekers are only one drop in an ocean of global misery. At the beginning of the third millennium there were some 22.3 million 'persons of concern', as the UNHCR delicately categorises the total number of people who come within its remit. That is one out of every 269 men, women and children on this planet. Of these, only a little more than 1 million consist of asylum seekers. The biggest group, some 11.5 million people, are refugees--people who never get to the stage of seeking asylum. And the second biggest group, nearly seven million people, are internally displaced persons (IDPs)--in other words, refugees within their own countries.


But this is only the tip of an iceberg. The vast majority of people forced to flee their homes fall outside the protection of international law because they fail to reach neighbouring countries and so remain untouched by the kinds of aid that the UNHCR offers. The UN estimate is that there are anything between 20 and 25 million of this vast, shadowy mass worldwide.

The explanation lies in the political and economic developments of the last decade. Since the end of the Cold War a new period of military conflict, both between states and increasingly within states, has opened up and the refugee problem is its human consequence.

In the last ten years there has been a spate of new conflicts in the Middle East, from Iraq to Afghanistan. There have also been bloody, genocidal conflicts covering huge swathes of central Africa from the Atlantic to the Indian oceans. And--too close for comfort as far as the European powers are concerned--we have seen the bitter ethnic hatreds in the former Yugoslavia. These explosions, and countless smaller ones, have produced gigantic human displacements--nearly 6 million in Europe alone, according to the UNHCR.

It is from those countries that the majority of refugees come. In Africa the 1994 Rwandan genocide led to 2 million people seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. Afghanistan, torn apart for much of the last 20 years, has alone produced a refugee population of 2.6 million. The vast majority of these Afghan refugees remain out of view of the world's media, rotting in camps in neighbouring Pakistan. Most of the world's refugees have no alternative but to stay close to the countries from which they have fled. This is true of Africa--and of former Yugoslavia.

Life in these camps is wretched and often dangerous. But settling outside these camps can be even more hazardous, with settlers finding themselves at risk from hostile authorities in the host countries. The hope must be that even if they cannot yet go back they can continue to exist within a recognisable community, culture, religion and language. Some do return. The UNHCR helped 2.5 million go back to their countries of origin in 2000. Top of the list were refugees returning to Yugoslavia (755,450 returned from Albania, Macedonia, Germany, Turkey, Switzerland and Bosnia-Herzegovina) and Afghanistan (252,700 returned from Iran and Pakistan). Most refugees have no option but to remain where war and conflict have driven them. Only a small proportion arrive knocking at the gates of Europe, North America or Australia. These are the refugees who have suffered persecution in one form or another, and who are often regarded with suspicion--are they really political refugees or merely economic migrants?

Two points need to be made here. The first is that a profile of refugees by country of origin matches almost exactly the global troublespots where conflict has broken out. So, for example, the Refugee Council indicates that in Britain last year the highest number of asylum seekers came from Iraq (9 percent), Sri Lanka (8 percent), Yugoslavia (7 percent), Afghanistan (7 percent), Iran (7 percent) and Somalia (6 percent). The same pattern is true of other countries, such as Germany. Increases in asylum applications (which the media treat as the beginning of the flood) mirror increases in conflict. As the 1990s show, they tend to fall as the conflicts themselves ebb, only to rise again as tensions flare up.

Bogus distinction

Denied entry by the Australian government, these refugees were eventually dumped at Narua, virtually a wasteland in the South Pacific
Denied entry by the Australian government, these refugees were eventually dumped at Narua, virtually a wasteland in the South Pacific

Secondly, however, the distinction between 'genuine' (political) refugees and 'bogus' (economic) refugees is itself thoroughly bogus--it is impossible to disentangle political from economic factors in this situation. Opening up the world to the free market has created greater poverty. If you are denied work in your country of origin because you are persecuted for being part of an ethnic minority, then fleeing your homeland because of vicious racist attacks is inevitably bound up with seeking better economic prospects for you and your family.

Article one of the 1951 UN Geneva convention defined a refugee as a person having a 'well founded fear of being persecuted' and being 'unwilling to avail himself of the protection' of his country. This, article one said, conferred rights on refugees which states party to the convention must honour. Fifty years later a less stable international environment, together with a decline in the role of state welfare, has led EU governments to talk of revising the 1951 convention and harmonising policy--ostensibly in the interests of greater transparency and fairness, but in fact to ensure that Fortress Europe has higher walls than ever.

There are many ways for states to wriggle out of their commitments. One is to claim, as Tory and Labour governments have, that asylum seekers from countries deemed 'safe' have no right to claim asylum in this country. Another, a variant on the first, is to make a distinction between persecution by the government (which is grounds for asylum) and persecution by groups acting independently of the government (which is not). A third is to argue that refugees should have claimed asylum in the first 'safe' country they came to as a reason for sending asylum seekers back to the countries through which they have travelled.

Why don't refugees in the camp at Calais seek asylum in France rather than here if they are genuine asylum seekers, British politicians frequently ask. France, however, offers no protection for those fleeing persecution from any group acting independently of the government. No wonder, then, that refugees at Sangatte, who are more likely to have English as a second language than French, try and flee to Britain.

Yet Britain's asylum policies are increasingly tough and vicious. Asylum seekers are prejudged as 'bogus'--guilty--because they enter 'illegally', on false papers or passports, or 'prefer' Britain to the countries that they could have stopped in before reaching this country. On arrival some are interviewed before they get legal advice or recover from shock or trauma. Others, not interviewed immediately on arrival, are given a 19-page statement of evidence form to complete within ten days of receiving it. This complicated form has to be completed in English, a task made more difficult by the problem refugees have in finding interpreters. Access to good legal advice is also difficult--not helped by the government's dispersal policy outside London. If asylum seekers fail to return the form the Home Office refuses their application point blank. At the end of 2000 roughly 30 percent of asylum seekers had their applications turned down as a result. Despite all these obstacles, just over half of all applications are ultimately successful.

Socialists are forced to argue about numbers in order to cut through the lies. But ultimately the case for defending asylum seekers doesn't rest on numbers. In a world where capital is free to circulate globally, its victims should be equally free to circulate. To deny them this freedom is to damage the working class internationally. It distracts our attention from those who are really responsible for poverty, exploitation and war.

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