Does refuge or riot await asylum seekers

25 Jan 01
According to the Home Office, the UK has a proud tradition of providing a safe haven for 'genuine' asylum seekers.

26 January 2001

Yet it is still the one topic that can guarantee a media frenzy, public hysteria and a platform for the occasional politician.

This week was no exception. A heavily leaked report from the Association of Chief Police Officers captured the headlines after warning of potential clashes between asylum seekers and host communities unless police move to stem racial tensions.

The report, a policing manual due to be published next month, also claims that racism towards asylum seekers is now so commonplace that it has become almost acceptable, but would never be tolerated against other minorities.

The chief officers paint a disturbing picture of communities teetering on the brink of racial war, describing the potential for public disorder as an ever-present danger.

Bob Ayling, Kent's deputy chief constable and lead officer on the manual, concedes that the policing needs of asylum seekers present a `challenge' but adds that families are entitled to live without fear of crime, harassment and intimidation.

Outbreaks of violence are already well documented, with eight people stabbed during clashes in Dover in 1999 and regular racist attacks reported in London, Liverpool and Glasgow. The Refugee Council adds to the picture with reports of daily harassment against asylum seekers across the country.

But behind the headlines, those on the front line have a different story to tell. Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, Conservative leader of Kent County Council, which houses around 10,000 asylum seekers, says tensions in the county were not based on race. `People had become worried and irritated by what they regard as a misuse of benefits and a slow and inefficient appeals process,' he told Public Finance. `But it is generally accepted that asylum seekers themselves are not the problem, it is the cumbersome appeals process which leaves them hanging around for months waiting for a decision.'

He also pointed to problems with the Home Office's dispersal system, which was designed to move 65,000 asylum seekers out of London and the Southeast by April.

So far only 10,850 have been dispersed in nine months, and Bruce-Lockhart reports a backlog of 1,000 asylum seekers languishing in temporary bed and breakfast hotels in Kent. `We had hoped for the dispersal scheme to move much quicker,' he said. `In 1997 we had just 50 asylum seekers; three years later we had 10,000. The cost to the council is more than £50m a year and we can't sustain that.'

David Barnes, a project manager working on the dispersal scheme in the West Midlands, agrees that the warnings of public disorder have been exaggerated.

He says the violent clashes seen in Dover have been unique to the port, but adds that the real `crunch' issue is where and how the asylum seekers are being dispersed.

`We need to be careful how we interpret such reports,' Barnes said. `We are not dealing with armed insurrection but we don't want to create social disorder by the way we disperse asylum seekers.'

He added that authorities in London and the Southeast needed to accept that the dispersal would have a slow start but, once planned properly, would work well.

`It's not just about putting people's heads on pillows,' he added. `We have to be sensitive to the needs of asylum seekers and host communities. If they eventually end up with refugee status, successful dispersal will be essential to their integration. If we make mistakes, it will have a huge impact on people's lives.'

But anecdotal evidence from the north of England suggests problems with the dispersal scheme, which may eventually give credence to Acpo's warnings.

One local authority project manager, who did not wish to be named, told Public Finance that the Home Office scheme was near to breaking point. He claimed that the practice of using private landlords to house asylum seekers was already creating tensions with families placed in substandard housing. `Asylum seekers in some areas are in danger of becoming ghettoised, which can only breed discontent,' he said.

The chief police officers also turn their attention to the media, whom they accuse of fanning the flames of community tension. Police forces are to be told to counter any alarmist views by liaising with local press and ensuring key messages on the rights of asylum seekers and their contribution to communities are delivered.

But newspaper headlines are often not without cause, and the doublespeak of government ministers this week will not help to quash public and media concerns.

Within a two-day period, immigration minister Barbara Roche trumpeted research claiming that migrants make a significant contribution to the economy of the UK, paying 10% more into the government's coffers than they take out.

But a day earlier it had emerged that ministers are planning to move some of those same people into England's most notorious jails while they wait to deport them.

`I don't believe it's right to hold people who have committed no crime in prison conditions,' said Sir David Ramsbotham, chief inspector of prisons.


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