Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Taking Over The Asylum

A journey into one of the tabloids' biggest obsessions.

Until about 10 years ago, the words asylum-seeker or refugee generally evoked feelings of sympathy.

People escaping from brutal dictatorships, wars or famine were seen as victims, as people to be taken in and sheltered. But over the last decade, the British media, with the mainstream political parties, have turned the words asylum-seeker and refugee into terms of abuse.

Up until the early 1990s, Britain recent a few thousand asylum applications each year, then, with the wars in former Yugoslavia and Somalia, figures started to climb.

Other European states were the obvious refuges for those fleeing the Yugoslav wars, and problems in states on Europe's borders, like Iraq, increased numbers into Europe.

Once these trafficking routes were set up, more followed from other states. By the late 1990s, applications had climbed close to 100,000 a year. Applications were taking years to process, and appeals added more years. Hundreds of thousands of people were left in a legal limbo, and as the government decided to lighten the load on London (were the majority of refugees lived), these became visible throughout towns and cities over the UK.

Now this caused some low level problems, mutterings from the usual suspects about preferential treatment and immigrants. But what really set things off was the Government's response. Faced with a backlog of cases and rising applications, the logical action would be to increase the numbers of staff dealing with applications.

Instead, New Labour decided to launch a campaign against asylum-seekers, vilifying them a 'bogus asylum-seekers', really 'economic migrants', who were coming to the UK to, implausibly, take advantage of the generosity of the British benefit system, and 'steal' British jobs.

The tabloid and right-wing papers lapped this up, given that it both touched upon their favourite political panics- welfare dependency and benefits cheats, and allowed them to talk about a subject which they had to approach with uncharacteristic sensitivity- race.

The right-wing papers had generally walked a tight-rope for previous decade, denouncing racism, whilst pushing a xenophobic and often borderline racist line on the EU, immigration and foreign policy. Asylum-seekers gave them the green light to pander to the prejudices of their readers, the large minority of people who did not think of themselves as racist, but, nevertheless, had reservations about ethnic minorities, and saw immigration, along with the EU, as something thrust upon them by the political elite.

Asylum-seekers, although ethnically different, were not an ethnic minority, therefore fair game for opinions and comments that would have been beyond the pale, or illegal, if said about a specific ethnic group. This debate spilled over, as it could not help doing in the hands of the tabloids, into a debate on immigration and race, and specifically ethnic identities.

The main point of this is to bemoan the creation of a debate on race and immigration, that ultimately led to the emergence of the far-right into British politics, to the point were BNP council seats, once unthinkable, are utterly overshadowed by bigger victories. New Labour attempted to win a few easy headlines, an easy way of showing their populist credentials.

However, they could never win this debate this way, since they could never go far enough to placate the right. On this issue, as on crime and benefits, the right-wing could always demand more, always portray New Labour's response as insufficient.

New Labour could have argued otherwise, it could have pointed to Britain's tradition of granting asylum, or countered perceptions of any unfairness or preferential treatment, but it chose otherwise. This approach legitimised the right, and eventually the far-right, as the media, Labour and the Tories all effectively parroted the far-rights complaints of foreigners stealing jobs, resources and benefits. The results of this are now clear.

Moreover, there was no other reason for this. Whatever New Labour's failings, at least most of its policies were part of a principled, if misguided, approach. Even the Iraq war stemmed from a view of Britain's strategic interests and tactical options (or Blair's messianic delusions, take your pick), there was some moral thought behind their policies. But on asylum-seekers, there was simply an easy target and cheap tabloid brownie points.

Because of this, I don't think there is any one issue that better sums up my utter despair with New Labour, and the damage that New Labour has done to progressive politics.


Chris Baldwin said...

You are correct, although I've not seen as much tabloid fear-mongering over asylum seekers in recent years as in the first half of this decade. They seem more interested in immigration and Muslims now. Make of that what you will.

socialist sam said...

I half agree with Chris Baldwin.
My view is that all those categories have been deliberately misrepresented and mixed so now (courtesy of certain press), some people see asylum seekers/bogeymen/muslims as one evil lot of nasties.