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Dermot Sullivan on asylum seekers

Between June 1999 and June 2000 I worked for Eurotunnel on the Channel Tunnel site. Immediately after I graduated, it was a summer job that stretched out for a little longer than I had originally intended. For several reasons it certainly was an eye-opener and was my introduction to the world on the asylum seeker.

'Hackwriters' asked me then if I'd write a piece about the situation as I saw it. Fortunately I held off. I knew then that our collective reactions were being hysterical, just as when the West Indians and the Asians came to Britain decades previously. If you watch television footage up even to the 1980's where 'the general publics' reaction is being gauged, then you find yourself cringing at the
unashamed bigotry that is being spouted, be it in the guise of concerned 'liberalism', trade unionism protecting white jobs or just racists wishing to keep our country 'pure'.

BBC News Aug 30th 2001:
'More than 40 illegal immigrants have been caught after they broke into the Channel Tunnel and tried to cross from France to England by foot, Eurotunnel said on Thursday. Spokesman Francois Borel said the immigrants forced their way through a security fence and entered one of the main tunnels on Wednesday night, but were quickly detected by guards. A team of police officers and Eurotunnel officials used the service tunnel to get ahead of the group, which had managed to walk seven miles'.

'In a separate incident, British coastguards picked up five would-be asylum seekers off the coast near Dover who had paddled from France in an inflatable dinghy'.

BNP Protesters

Coming from Folkestone I have always taken a keen interest in the subject in the asylum seekers issue, mostly because it was taking place on my doorstep. I can remember clearly the weekend when the first waves of gypsies arrived. We were so completely unprepared for it. As it turned out, the roots of the problem lay somewhere else many years before.

When the state of Czechoslovakia split in two the new Czech government classed all the gypsies as Slovak citizens. Naturally the Slovakian government wasn't to thrilled at this prospect and barred them entry to the new state. Unfortunately for the gypsies, as they were no longer classed as citizens of the Czech Republic, they were denied all access to education, health care and everything else provided for from the welfare state. Anyone who was in Prague in the mid-1990's could not have failed to notice gypsy beggars hassling tourists for money.

The Czech government needed a quick solution to this problem. So in 1997 they screened a documentary on their national television channel. The programme showed how Britain had the most 'welcoming' asylum laws in Europe and then proceeded to explain how to apply and receive Britain's 'generous' welfare pay-outs. Not surprisingly Dover was full of gypsies the following weekend.

People seem to forget that up until the 1980's the asylum system was viewed as an institution that made Britain great. Individuals fleeing persecution from Communist states were welcome here. It made us feel that we were the good guys during the Cold War. The Soviet Union and East Germany can't be that great if everyone was jumping over the wall at every given opportunity.

However, this system was only geared to accept individuals, not thousands in one go. Both Conservative and Labour governments had no clue how to deal with the problem. It was taking years to process applications. Nearly all of the asylum seekers were kept in London and the South-East, with the council tax rates in the coastal areas rising to pay for it all. At the same time the press were running headlines painting a picture of Britain as a country under siege from invaders who were here to bleed us dry. It's very sad really, as everytime it appears that that people and the press are calming down and are about to deal with the situation rationally, quite the opposite happens.

A Kurdish man was murdered in Glasgow recently and another man was brutally attacked in Hull for no other reason than that they were asylum seekers. The Labour government, masters of spin doctoring, say that they were going to create an 'asylum Czar'. Why didn't they sort it out when they came to power in 1997? If this new creation is anything like its equivalent for 'drugs' then he will just be a government stooge spouting out the Prime Minister's policies. In other words he will not be independent and therefore rendered powerless.

I: Here are some simple facts to do with asylum seekers: they receive £36.54 a week to live on. It's given to them in vouchers which are only redeemable in certain shops (which unbelievably will not give any change for them). Only 10% of the amount can be exchanged for cash. Britain actually gives out less than other countries, such as Ireland, Belgium and Denmark.

2: The majority of asylum applications to this country are accepted. Many of the refusals are then overturned on appeal. Overall there are very few 'illegals' living in Britain as a percentage.The majority of people coming to this country are from places where human rights abuses are common- place, such as Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka or the Balkans.

3: If someone travels to Britain from their country via what we would deem a 'safe' democracy, it does not make their claim any less valid. France and Germany (hardly countries anyway with a history of racial tolerance) regularly refuse asylum to Algerians and Tamils. Under the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, anyone has the legal right to come to Britain (or any EU state), seek asylum and stay here whilst their case is being assessed. As Europe tightens it's immigration laws though, it has become virtually impossible to reach a 'safe' country through legal means. Most people seeking Britain don't actually flee to Britain.

4: Our country is ranked 6th in Europe and 78th in the world. It is the poorest and / or neighbouring countries that take the strain. Also, contrary to popular myth, a report by the Association of Chief Police Officers states that there is no evidence of increased criminality amongst asylum seekers. Quite often the opposite is true: it is they who are the victims.

5: What I find the most ridiculous thing about our asylum laws is that individuals are not allowed to work. We had 76 000 accepted last year, but we have skills shortages in the UK of over 200 000. The Treasury believes that if they worked they would pay back at least 10% more than it costs to keep them. Instead if they want to work they have to do it illegally and the state gets nothing. Also it becomes neigh impossible to integrate these people. I don't want to really state the obvious, but aren't all these Kosovars, Afghans or Kurds human beings? People are people, no matter what anyone else says or tells you. Does it really matter if your neighbour is black or white. If we concentrate on integration then we can all get along. Also, do you think a seagull flying from Calais to Dover sees any difference in the country? It's simply a mental thing where someone draws a line on a map. How can you criminalise someone for crossing that line simply because he wants a better life? Who does that line benefit: us, them, or big business who need cheap labour who foreign countries.

*Afghan Refugees on the Norweigan
ship awaiting Australia's decision

We have to ask ourselves what would happen if there was free immigration. There is a bigger picture out there and we are just pawns and puppets. As I finish this article I am glancing over to the television news and I can see that Australia is illegally refusing entry to refugees fleeing Teleban persecution in Afghanistan. Have Australians forgotten how their country was built? Every criminal and refugee the British Empire had to offer. Never mind the fact the there is an election at the end of the year and Prime Minister John Howard wants to appear 'tough'. It's not that there is not a lot of available space in that country either. We're not talking about South-Eastern England here. However, John Howard has been cited by the UN as leading a genocidal policy against the Aboriginies. I could write about this forever. Don't just take my word for it. Check out the facts for yourself.

There is little sign of either Australia or Indonesia giving in.
Both countries have refused to accept the boat people, who were picked up by the cargo ship, the Tampa, on Sunday when their ferry began sinking. Anyone remember the 'Ship of Fools'?

Start with refugeecouncil. to begin with. Form your own opinions. Don't let yours be manipulated anymore. Be fair, be tolerant, embrace these differing cultures, after all this has been going for centuries and each new wave has enriched our culture for the better. Think about it.

© Dermon Sullivan 2001

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