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Wednesday, 14 August 2013 00:00

Desperate, suffering and over here

by Erin Mee

Refugees are stuck in the middle of the government's attack on immigrants

When the UN refugee convention was set up in 1951 following the atrocities of the second world war, Britain proudly signed up.

Never again would we allow fellow human beings to suffer when we could offer them safety in our country.

But this principle is currently being forgotten and smothered by political propaganda as we succumb to distorted facts and figures reported by mainstream media.

It seems that when asylum-seekers make the headlines, it is only ever in stories which are negative, controversial or trivial to the point of stupidity.

The dangerous and false conclusion to be drawn from these stories is that those seeking asylum are our enemy - a drain on our resources and a burden to society.

The government's recent crackdown on immigration, which provoked Clegg's U-turn on his amnesty proposal and hysteria about the Border Agency's backlog, risks fuelling public hostility towards all immigrants, regardless of the reasons that they are here.

While the crackdown is in anticipation of Romanian and Bulgarian economic migrants and Clegg's amnesty was aimed at illegal immigrants, lazy terminology and scaremongering tactics will ensure that asylum-seekers - who are neither illegal nor economically motivated - are caught in the net too.

On top of this the Home Office has sent out its "go home or face arrest" vans and is currently being investigated for racial profiling during immigration spot-checks, which disproportionally hit asylum-seekers, who tend to be non-white.

But asylum-seekers pose no threat to us, and can be of great benefit if we allow them.

Because immigrants are being used as a scapegoat for our country's economic problems, people believe they are all freeloaders who come to Britain for the benefits and social housing.

But who "they" are is frustratingly vague, with reports lumping together all sorts of people, whether asylum-seekers, illegal immigrants or economic migrants, leading ordinary people to do the same.

Refugees are being denied the respect they deserve and the opportunity to contribute to society.

Our government forces them into destitution and dependency and we stand by because we are under some ridiculous illusion that they are "on to a winner" by being here.

Asylum-seekers are ordinary people trying to rebuild their lives somewhere else because they face persecution in their home counties.

Just 2.6 per cent of immigrants are seeking asylum, and only one in five of those will be granted it.

Britain does not have large numbers of asylum-seekers because geographically and practically it isn't accessible for those with limited resources coming from the far corners of the Earth.

Asylum-seekers are scarcely in a position, as a fellow campaigner once put it, to "open up the holiday brochures, read about the welfare state in Britain and get on the first flight here."

Instead they are generally given refuge by countries bordering their own.

If they have to travel further afield, they will often use traffickers and thus will not know which country they are going to until they arrive.

They arrive illegally because often there is no other way to leave a dangerous country, but they differ from illegal immigrants because in order to claim asylum you have to make yourself known to the authorities.

An asylum-seeker is allowed to remain here until a decision has been reached on their application.

Illegal immigrants have no permission to be in the country and are violating immigration laws, whereas asylum-seekers are claiming their human right to "seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution" - article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Asylum-seekers are also not the same as economic migrants, who arrive legally in other countries to find work if there are not jobs available at home.

Economic migrants are mobile and can come and go because their home country poses no threat to them.

But for asylum-seekers going home is not a safe option and, unlike economic migrants, they do not have permission to work while waiting for a decision on their application, regardless of whether this takes months or years.

They aren't "taking our jobs" and can't claim state benefits such as income support, tax relief, jobseeker's allowance, housing benefit or child benefit.

If someone seeking asylum asks our government to protect and offer them permanent residence here, they firstly have to forgo their right to work and their financial freedom.

They must survive on charity or the minimal financial assistance from the Border Agency during their application.

If they qualify for this "asylum support" it is typically only 60 per cent of jobseeker's allowance - which the government deems to be the minimum necessary to live on.

They must give up their freedom of movement, telling the Border Agency where they are at all times, knowing that they can be arrested, detained and deported without any notice.

But now asylum-seekers are treated as just another immigration statistic, rather than ordinary people living through extraordinary circumstances.

Few people have had direct contact with refugees. Instead our "knowledge" about them comes from newspapers and television reports which tar all immigrants with the evil asylum-seeker brush, regardless of their reasons for coming to Britain.

"Asylum-seeker" is really just a temporary description for what someone is doing at this point in their life and does not define the person themselves.

It's not too late to remind ourselves of the principle outlined in the refugee convention.

Most people would not feel hostility towards asylum-seekers if we were given a realistic view of them, if we knew who these vulnerable people are, what they've experienced and how our government and society decides to "take care" of them.

The powers that be would rather you believe that asylum-seekers only ever come in the form of Russian ex-banker Andrei Borodin, who lives on the £140 million Park Place estate despite being wanted by Russia for fraud, or al-Qaida-linked Abu Qatada, recently deported to Jordan after a long fight, who was granted asylum here in the early 1990s.

They'd rather keep you speculating about what extravagant lifestyles asylum-seekers might be leading at the taxpayer's expense.

This is simply not true and it takes just a little effort to realise it.

Next time you see a story about asylum-seekers, look beneath the surface.

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