Doing right by asylum seekers
The last Labour government’s treatment of asylum seekers left a lot to be desired.
It’s not surprising when a certain section of the media cast the most vulnerable in society as good-for-nothing scroungers. Less expected is the way that Labour – a party that Harold Wilson described as a ‘moral crusade or it is nothing’ – acquiesced to this process and sold principle for the sake of delighting middle England.
The fact that it took a Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition to end the detention of children in asylum centres is disgraceful. And it should have long been the policy of government to grant refuge to those seeking sanctity from persecution because of their sexuality. But shamefully, such measures were not implemented by a Labour administration.
Tony Blair enjoyed basking in moral self-aggrandisement, but compassion was lacking when it came to treating people who ran the risk of being tortured or killed as a result of policy. And it’s hard to forgive Gordon Brown for missing the compassion you would expect of a son of the manse. Ultimately, both men presided over excessive emphasis on the risk of bogus applications, and failed to remove glaringly objectionable practices in the system.
It is easy to see why Labour was happy to pursue hard line policies. Public knowledge surrounding asylum is abysmal. In a 2009 poll 44% believed that 100,000 or more individuals were allowed to stay in the country and a further 33% thought the number was 25,000. In fact, in 2009, only 4,175 people were granted refugee status. Amidst this misunderstanding it is difficult for any government to take a stand and act in the interest of a tiny minority.
On top of this, in both the 2001 and 2005 general elections, the opposition attempted to make political capital out of immigration and ‘bogus’ asylum claims. Immigrants and asylum seekers have long been cognitively mashed together by a media uninterested in distinguishing the two.
Yet the problem with inclining to the right is that you lose support on the left. One reason why liberal left voters went astray (best demonstrated by Labour losing the support of The Guardian) was that it strove too hard to be hard-nosed. Images of the Yarl’s Wood detention centre swirled with the memory of the introduction of ASBOs, and the extension of detention without trial, to paint a hugely depressing image. It is important not to forget that for many people, Labour did not appear different from the Tories.
And we shouldn’t underestimate the effect of this culture on the behaviour of the UK Border Agency, including recent allegations that several people refused asylum were subjected to ‘inhumane and degrading treatment’ upon returning to their native Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the asylum system, the burden of proof is on the asylum seeker. Inaccuracies and inconsistencies which could be the result of trauma are singled out as evidence of a bogus application. It is not surprising there is evidence of significant and troubling mistakes in our the way claims are processed.
It’s time that Labour paid a little quiet attention to its asylum policy. It’s time the leadership commits to cease its attempts to win votes by loudly proclaiming its tough approach to claimants. In an ideal world the Labour party should formulate policy that better safeguards people who really are in desperate trouble. At the very least it should be recognised that detention of children and refusing gay or lesbian asylum seekers was wrong. A change of tone is warranted.
Those who come to our shores seeking safety deserve a place in which their human rights are protected; one where they are not demonised by a media and political class obsessed by a threat that does not exist.
It is important to recognise that such positions need not be politically damaging. The Conservatives, although a long way from huskies and hoody hugging, still cling to the hope they are perceived as caring. They do not want to be the nasty party and it is unlikely they will pick a fight over asylum seekers. Labour need not do so either – it just needs determination not to make the same mistakes again.