Hirit Belai

Last year, as the Government prepared to introduce new regulations that would have the effect of cutting social security benefits to asylum-seekers, the Daily Mail announced that the world’s refugees saw Britain ‘as a soft touch with freely available welfare payments and a laborious appeals procedure’. It was a nonsensical assertion. Over the last ten years, Britain has recognised 9000 refugees and allowed another 45,000 to remain ‘exceptionally’ – an average intake of roughly 5000 refugees and would-be refugees a year. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there are now some 20,000 recognised refugees in Britain, 30,000 in Holland, five times that number in France and over a million in Germany.

According to the Government’s proposals, benefits would be withheld from anyone who failed to apply for asylum immediately on arrival, and from those involved in the lengthy process of appealing a decision to deny them asylum. But even the social security advisory committee set up by Peter Lilley doubted his claim that this would constitute a saving of £200 million. It also warned that ‘extreme hardship’ was likely to result from the legislation. The proposals nonetheless took effect from February. Last month, the Court of Appeal ruled that the new social security regulations were illegal: the Government responded by reinstating them in the form of an emergency amendment to the Asylum and Immigration Bill, which went through the House of Lords on 1 July. An Opposition amendment allowing asylum-seekers three day’s grace – rather than a single day – to claim refugee status or lose their right to benefit was voted through by a narrow majority. That is something, but when the Bill becomes law, as it may later this month, there will be at least 8000 asylum-seekers without benefit, according to the Refugee Council; many of them will be homeless.

A policy that attempts to discourage future asylum-seekers by punishing those who are already here doesn’t make much sense when migration is overwhelmingly the consequence of insecurity in the country of origin – the ‘attractions’ of Britain are not a consideration. Besides, previous attempts to tighten visa laws and restrict asylum have made access to Britain so difficult that an underworld of agencies and criminals now thrives on the plight of refugees and other migrants. ‘Third Country’ restrictions mean that if immigration officers can prove that you stopped anywhere they consider safe en route for the UK, whether it was Orly Airport or a refugee camp in Sudan, they will detain you, either in Queens Building at Heathrow or at Campsfield Prison in Oxford, before deporting you. And under the Carriers’ Liability Act of 1993 airlines are fined £2000 for each passenger they bring to Britain without a valid passport and visa. Both these restrictions were British innovations which other European countries were quick to copy. But refugees are unlikely to have visas and, in Africa, Western embassies are not keen to issue them, which means that the only way out for most people is to bribe their way onto a plane.

This was the case for Sara, an Ethiopian refugee whom I met through a friend not long after her arrival last December. She came here seeking political asylum, having escaped from detention in Sudan to a refugee camp in Kenya where, for three years, ‘life was hell.’ In the end, she paid $3000 to an agent in Mombasa, who provided her with all the paperwork she needed to get here: a passport, a return ticket, a letter of introduction about a fictitious business trip, typed on the headed notepaper of a well-known international organisation, and the valid visa which these had enabled him to obtain. Without them, she could not have boarded the plane in Nairobi.

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