Diary

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.

She had been through years of threats, imprisonment and torture and, however reassuring her agent, saw no reason why things should be very different in Britain. On her arrival at Heathrow, she rushed into the first toilets she could find, passing a suspicious-looking man near the entrance, shut the door behind her and in compliance with the agent’s instructions, tore up the documents she had paid so much for and flushed them down the toilet. She waited for at least an hour before coming out – enough time, she hoped, for her plane to have departed. It would now be very difficult for immigration to trace her to a country of origin and impossible to make a turn-around deportation from Heathrow.

The man by the entrance of the toilets was still there when she came out. He asked to see her passport and ticket, to know what flight she had arrived on and why she had spent so long in the toilet. He led her off to the immigration assembly area, threatening to detain and then deport her. She insisted that she had no documents. He pushed her against the wall and took her photograph. He also took her fingerprints. She did not feel safe with him, she told me, but she kept her head despite a volley of hostile questions and in the end was referred to the Refugee Arrivals Project. In due course she applied for asylum.

Not everyone who comes to Britain seeking asylum is that resolute. Last month I accompanied a Liberian asylum-seeker and her malnourished, two-year-old daughter to a Hackney benefits office. Social security offices in London boroughs are not ‘attractive’ places for people who have just escaped a war. We took our numbered ticket. I tried to guide Mary through the endless forms which are the asylum-seeker’s first contact with the welfare state. Mary had fled intense fighting in Liberia. She spent months in hiding on a farm in Ivory Coast with her daughter and other Liberian refugees after she learnt that her husband and several male relations had been killed for refusing to join a rebel faction. UNHCR granted her refugee status and helped her travel to Britain. With its mass of unruly, desperate people, clients whose giro cheques had failed to show up, distraught men and women screaming that they were on medication but couldn’t afford their special diet because they had been overlooked ‘due to computer error’ or ‘staff shortages’, and drunks threatening security guards. Hackney DSS seemed to be hosting its own equally bewildering civil war. An inter-racial slanging match erupted between two young British women, occasioning the arrival of the police, who clearly put Mary on edge.

Just as the Carriers’ Liability Act means that airlines have to act as immigration officers, the Government expects many of its employees – doctors, benefit agencies, Homeless Persons Units and teachers – to check the immigration status of their clients. Many refuse, but when Mary’s number was finally called she faced a repetition of her Heathrow interrogation of the previous week. The DSS officer, whose sole duties were to examine the income support and housing benefit forms we’d filled in and verify the ‘IS96’ form issued to refugees by immigration, eyed us disdainfully and then launched into an inquisition. ‘Why did you leave Liberia? What is going on there? What was your role in the fighting? What is your address in Liberia? How much money did you bring with you? Who paid your airfare? Where is the father of the child? What is your father’s name?’ It was clear from her accent, and the derision with which she treated Mary, that she, too, was from West Africa.

Many members of the British public have a somewhat different approach. In the DSS, the Homeless Persons Unit or on public transport, there are always people, often DSS claimants themselves, who go out of their way to assist refugees. The wretchedness and the uncleanliness, the smell of old nappies, all this is tolerated, especially by women. They give money, nappies and children’s clothes and sometimes they leave the DSS offices or HPUs and come back with fruit or a loaf of bread for the children. It is clear to them that there is a crisis of some sort which requires attention.

Paradoxically, it is the Carriers’ Liability Act above all which has led to the proliferation of migration agencies and to what the Home Secretary now denounces as ‘immigration racketeering’ – the illegal provision of documentation for people like Sara. Such agencies have mushroomed in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and even Europe, for the simple reason that vast amounts of money are to be made by providing an effective way of complying with or circumventing each new regulation that the Home Secretary proposes. Agencies make money by convincing clients they are one step ahead of changes in asylum procedures, by warning them of the lines of questioning they’ll face and talking them through the ‘acceptable’ stories they should tell. In order to keep this service up to date, they try to ensure that clients report back on arrival in Britain. Usually there are threats of retribution if they don’t

Rarely, it seems to me, will an agent bringing several clients in – whether they are minors or adults – take the risk of going with them through immigration. It is more likely that he will collect all their documents, for recycling later, and head on, or back, to his own destination, abandoning his charges in the Arrivals Hall. He may even instruct them to wait there for a nominal someone who is supposed to turn up, but never appears. An agent with a single client may go through immigration in the usual way and then leave his charge at a likely point of entry into the system – on the steps of a DSS office, for example, outside a refugee support organisation or a community centre frequented by fellow nationals. In this case, too, the agent retains the client’s documents.

In Terminal Three at Heathrow one evening recently I saw a group of seven Ethiopian children – unaccompanied, disorientated and distressed. They were looking for a corner of the concourse to sleep in. The youngest must have been eight; the rest were all under 14. I asked why they had no one to meet them and heard one of them whisper to the others: ‘Don’t talk to her, she is not ours.’ In the end they explained that their parents had given them to a ‘friend’ in Addis the day before who’d seen them through Customs and then vanished in the Arrivals Hall. They had no idea why they were here, what to do or who to turn to. Eventually someone contacted Social Services and put them into the system. According to the Home Office, 360 unaccompanied children under 17 arrived in the UK in 1994, the largest number from Somalia and Sri Lanka. But even in countries without major conflicts, elements of the prosperous middle classes are nowadays willing to pay to get their children on a plane to Europe. Most African parents, for example, say they are pessimistic about the stability of their continent. Dropping their children like freight at European airports is hardly a solution. One 12-year-old I met at an immigration appeals court told me his father was in America and his mother in Sweden. ‘Why didn’t you join one of them?’ I asked. ‘They probably don’t like me any more,’ he replied.

Restricting freedom of movement can have other perverse effects, besides creating opportunities for racketeers. Mr Appo, a Ugandan businessman, began trading between East Africa, the UK and India during the Eighties. British immigration officers gave him a harder grilling each time he entered. The final straw came in 1994 when, on arrival, they confiscated his passport and told him to collect it on leaving. He did so and discovered that, after ten years of travelling to and from Britain, his visa had been cancelled. He would not, he was told, be readmitted. In Uganda he arranged for a new passport, returned to the UK and claimed asylum. Appo evinced no desire to be a refugee, and despised the idea of filling in social security forms. All he wanted was to buy goods in Britain every few months. ‘Now,’ he told me, ‘my lifeline is cut off. I manage a big family and my survival depends on trade. I have no other qualifications. I never asked to depend on British welfare, and my life is far more comfortable in Kampala. When we travel as tourists or on business they are suspicious: for them we are the wretched of the earth and cannot afford a holiday or a travel fare.’ It is simpler, he believes, for the Government to deal with asylum-seekers.

In 1995, 22,500 people from Africa applied for asylum in Britain. The likelihood of their being allowed to stay is slim. In the same period 14,000 decisions were reached, with the result that 80 people – a little more than 0.5 percent of applicants – were recognised as refugees; a further 2500 were allowed to remain temporarily. These extraordinary statistics are used to substantiate official claims that the system is being overwhelmed by ‘bogus’ refugees. In fact, they are a reflection of the Government’s policy on political asylum. ‘Bogus’ and ‘genuine’ are in any case entirely fickle categories. The distinction rests on a refugee being able to demonstrate a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’, the definition given in the 1951 Geneva Convention. Yet there are no clear-cut, objective criteria whereby applicants can prove, or the Home Office refute, a fear of persecution. In practice, asylum procedures are an elaborate game of legal storytelling; the success of an application depends on how the applicant presents his or her story and how Home Office officials interpret it in the light of what they know or believe the political conditions to be in the applicant’s home country.

As the new legislation is expressly designed to tighten the rules and reduce the numbers of refugees, genuine or not, immigration officials tend increasingly to treat all applications as suspect. The process thus becomes thoroughly circular. Tighter legislation means fewer and fewer applicants are recognised as ‘genuine’. The remainder are labelled ‘bogus’, thereby confirming the need for tighter control, which in turn produces the startlingly low figure for successful applications that the Government can invoke to justify its policy. A similar situation is developing throughout Europe with each country having its own interpretations and rules.

Last autumn, while the final touches were being put to the plan to protect the ‘soft touch’ welfare state, the life of someone who understood better than many what it means to be a refugee was commemorated in Oxford. In the Seventies and Eighties, Ahmed Karadawi was a commissioner for refugees in Sudan, where he coped with the movement of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing from a barbarous regime in Ethiopia and the war it waged in Eritrea. The tributes were a reminder that vast numbers of people owed their lives to Karadawi, who was eventually forced into exile himself. As an activist and academic, he went on to research the plight of refugees until his death last November. Remarking the growth of hostile official attitudes here, he warned that ‘African countries are quick to learn and will follow your example.’ Already there is evidence that rulers in Zaire and Sudan are following Britain’s ‘tough’ stance. If they persist, the consequences will be serious: last year, there were 1.8 million refugees in Zaire and nearly a million in Sudan. There are many more in the rest of the continent – which, of course, makes it hard to explain to someone like Mary why the DSS is loath to part with a £12 crisis loan, or why Britain is legislating refugees out of existence.