Thursday, 6 March 2008

The cruelty and xenophobia that govern the UK's asylum system

Today, yet another case has emerged to illustrate how inhumane and out of touch with reality the UK Asylum System really is.

Mehdi Kazemi is a gay Iranian teenager who came to Britain to study and gain qualifications before returning to his own country to put them into use. However, in a phone call with his father in Tehran in 2006, he learned that his boyfriend had been arrested on charges of sodomy and publicly executed. Before being killed, he revealed under duress that Kazemi was his partner. Thus, knowing that if he returned he would suffer the same fate, Kazemi appealed for asylum in Britain.

However, the teenager's case was rejected late last year and he fled to Holland in fear for his life. He is currently being detained by Dutch authorities who are considering whether, under the Dublin Treaty, they should send him back to Britain. If they do, he will almost certainly be deported to Iran to face persecution, torture, and death.

This case illustrates perfectly how the government is treating the lives of the most desperate and needy people who come to its door with callous contempt, in order to keep down the number of asylum seekers in the UK and appease the xenophobic mindset of the likes of The Sun and The Daily Mail.

The core of the anti-asylum lobby's argument is that we need to have tighter regulations regarding asylum in order to keep out the large number of bogus refugees they claim are swamping our shores. They claim that asylum seekers actively choose their destination, seeking a 'soft touch' with an easy to access system of benefits, and that a large majority of them are criminals. The facts, however, paint a different picture.

The 'bogus' asylum seeker is a myth of the xenophobic right. Refugees come from countries with appalling human rights records, war zones, or actively discriminate against certain groups. Consider the main sources of asylum seekers to Britain. Dafur is the centre of an ongoing civil war and ethnic cleansing. Iraq has been torn apart by terrorism and sectarian conflict since the war conducted by the US and Britain. Afghanistan has the same problems as Iraq, as well as a 'liberated' goverment that clings to the bigotted religious laws of the Taliban. Zimbabwe is falling apart under the disastrous dictatorship of Robert Mugabe. And Saudi Arabia and Iran are brutal, backward theocracies that crush free speech and oppress women and gays.

The large majority of asylum seekers do not choose their destination, but simply move until they find somewhere that they deem safe. Those that do have some limited choice seek out places where friends and family have already settled. And the large majority of refugees are taken in poor countries. Two thirds of the world's refugees live in camps in Africa and Asia.

The idea that Britain is a 'soft touch' that deals out luxurious benefits is the most pernicuous myth, however. It holds the imagination of the public and is so ingrained into the national psyche that it seems to clinch any argument on the subject. However, the fact remains that it is a myth.

Britain has one of the most rigid and complex asylum systems in the world, and those who enter it are first detained, in overcrowded prison camps, whilst their case is heard. Of these, most are rejected. The most glaring example is that 88% of Iraqis have been rejected at the initial stage, including a large number who have acted as scouts and informants for the British Army there and played a huge role in the war effort. Two thousand of those held each year are children, who do not have any protection from abuse under UK law. Those that do have their claims accepted are mostly given a maximum of five years leave, making it impossible to put down any solid roots.

As for the benefits system, state support for asylum seekers is just 70% of what is given on income support, and most claimants remain 33% below the official poverty line. Refugees are also unable to claim other benefits, such as disability allowance, and the idea that they get mobile phones or other such perks is an outright lie. As for the recent controversy over asylum seekers jumping the queue for social housing, they are in fact shipped into 'hard to let' properties that nobody else wants to live in and not supported by the local council. And this is just those who actually get benefits. The benefits system, complex enough to a native such as myself, is alien and unknown to most asylum seekers, many of whom end up working on the black market, exploited by unscrupulous employers and paid a pittance far below minimum wage.

Nearly every argument against asylum put forward by the right-wing has been debunked by facts and experience in the real world, yet they continue to put forward their arguments, deliberately confusing asylum with the separate issue of immigration for good measure. The worst part is that this flawed and morally bankrupt argument has far more outlets than the facts ever will. That is why New Labour has been even more callous to the refugees of the world than even the toughest Conservative government, striving constantly to appease a hateful consensus entirely manufactured by the media.

And so, whilst we might ponder how the media's artificial engineering of public opinion might affect our democracy, the real victims of this horrendous propaganda campaign are people like Mehdi Kazemi. He and others are being shipped off to face persecution, torture, and death because the British government panders so willingly to a hate campaign it will never appease and cracks down hard on those who most need our help.