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We must answer the hard questions about asylum

Article by Mark Leonard

September 15, 2006

When it comes to asylum seekers, the right have always had the best tunes. The send em’ all home brigade in Smith Square are again drafting draconian policies to woo middle England. Tory strategists believe that on past form, their plans to lock up all immigrants in army barracks for six weeks will deliver an electoral revival.

But the Tories have claimed victory by default on asylum. They have only won in the past because progressive opinion has opted out of the debate. The knee-jerk reaction amongst liberals has been to condemn inflammatory language without answering the vexed question of how we deal with the huge increase in asylum applications. Now the left has finally realised that it needs persuasive policies to counter prison-camp rhetoric.

Immigration is always emotive and has real resonance in Labour’s heartlands. But however much people complain about it, it isn’t one of the bread-and-butter issues that will decide the Blair government’s fate.

Monthly polls organised by Mori show that only 4% of voters think it is the most important political issue. With political leadership it should be possible to win in asylum, but Labour urgently needs a clear intellectual case. First, they must resist the knee-jerk reaction against foreigners. The current climate treats all newcomers – economic migrant or aylum, bogus or legitimate – as a problem. A new breed of politicians never tire of celebrating multicultural Britain, yet in the same breath they refer to new refugees as a “burden”.

This confusion – mixing up asylum and immigration and failing to develop a coherent approach to either – doesn’t just betray our human rights and our history of global links. It fails to see that getting immigration right is vital to our success in the global knowledge economy.

On asylum, the xenophobic right must be prevented from hijacking our history. Our long tradition of providing refuge for the persecuted is often conveniently airbrushed out. Britain’s protection of the Huguenots persecuted by Louis XIV should be invoked by speech writers as often as the Battle of Britain. The Conservatives’ attacks on asylum seekers can be easily resisted by glancing at the biographies of the upper echelons of the party. It’s not just that Michael Portillo would not be in Britain today if Anne Widdecombe’s policies had been adopted in the 1930s – Nigel Lawson, Leon Brittan and Keith Joseph would never have made it either.

Support for accepting genuine asylum seekers is undermined by a shambolic system which takes 13 months to process an average claim. Last year, Britain had 53% more asylum applications than in 1998 and now receives more than Germany. Numbers have increased tenfold in a decade – from 4, 000 in 1989 to 46, 000 in 1998 – not because Britain is a “soft touch” but because of the fall-out of the end of the cold war. Britain has to fulfil its obligations under international treaties, but there is a limit to the number that can be absorbed. The Government should make a clear commitment every three years to on the maximum number of asylum seekers – in the absence of a major catastrophe that might require negotiation. As the Prime Minister argues: “unless reasonable and tolerant people” deal with abuses in the system, the unreasonable and intolerant will take control.

On immigration, we need to be guided by hardheaded economic analysis rather than the mental hangover of an ethnic colour bar. It is ironic that tabloid furore has reached fever pitch at the same time as forecasters are calling for an increase in skilled immigrant labour.

Economists and demographers are predicting a fiercely competitive international market for the best-educated migrants. Europe will struggle to support its pensioners as life spans stretch and birth rates slow. A dwindling band of young workers will have to pay for the pensions and healthcare of their parents and grandparents. Countries may be forced to offer cash incentives to import young wealth creators from Asia and the third world.

Immigrants have a proven track record of creating wealth wherever they go – and it isn’t all down to hard work. Global markets have a constant thirst for new ideas, new products, new recipes, new ways of doing things. Immigrants shake-up vested interests, take on bloated corporations and bring about new working practices.

But our negative stereotypes of immigrants stop us from harnessing their potential. The tabloid assumption that they sign on the dole within hours of touchdown is replicated by official structures. Asylum seekers are not allowed to enter the labour market while their case is being investigated and the only advice they receive is how to access the social security network. Yet hard-working migrants in search of a better life haven’t come here to live on a sink estate on £40 a week. Gordon Brown could think about a new deal for immigrants with language training, work experience and advice on setting up a business.

The Chancellor claims that 1m jobs are left vacant in the UK. But there has been no attempt to identify where the skill shortages lie. The Department of Trade and Industry could also carry out a national skills audit to find out whom we need and where we need them. We should allow a limited number economic migrants based on proof of their skills. Canada has created a points system that scores would-be migrants according to their skills and qualifications. Every year 100, 000 asylum seekers disappear from the radar screens during the protracted claims process. Most are working as cleaners, waiters and security guards. I have come across mini-cab drivers who are trained engineers, psychiatrists working as builders. We need a route to guide them back to the formal, taxed economy. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has suggested that immigrants could be guaranteed citizenship if they were willing to use their qualifications.

Other European countries are waking up to the advantages of outsiders. Gerhard Shroder has unveiled a Green Card Scheme – allowing up to 30, 000 IT specialists and from European countries outside the EU without the bureaucratic nightmares. The US has been doing this for years. Cricket is now one of the fastest growing sports in Silicon Valley as Indian programmers set up local teams.

Labour won’t win if it tries to out-Widdecombe the Tories. But it can show that the Tories’ attempts to wrap themselves in the flag betray this country’s history and store up economic problems for the future. Labour’s attempt to redefine Britishness will amount to nothing if it fails to inject some sanity into the asylum debate .

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