Life under New Labour wasn’t a lot of fun for asylum seekers. Five rafts of primary legislation in the 13 years that the party was in power progressively worked to limit asylum seekers rights and access to basic support. From the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act to the 2007 UK Borders act, asylum seekers were subjected to forced dispersal, the end of benefits entitlements (and the introduction of an alternative support system offering poor quality housing and financial aid 60% of normal benefits), biometric ID cards, tagging, the proliferation of arbitrary immigration detention and compulsory regular reporting to monitoring centres. They were banned from taking employment, appeal rights on asylum decisions were diminished year on year, and failed asylum seekers were pushed off the edge of the welfare cliff completely: essentially left destitute.
Over the course of this sorry period in the history of immigration policy in this country, refugee community organisations, NGOs, charities, academics, social movement activists and left wing politicians (the Greens and Respect mostly) have been fighting for the rights of asylum seekers. Those lobbying for change have focused their work in the following key areas: the right to work, an end to immigration detention (and child detention specifically), reintegration of asylum seekers into the mainstream benefits system, an end to violent, forced and unexpected deportations, the inclusion of sexual orientation in recognition of asylum claims, and access to healthcare for refused asylum seekers.
Such campaigns have not been the sole purview of the Left. Even the Tory MP Iain Duncan Smith felt moved to speak out with publication of ‘Asylum Matters’ by right wing think tank The Centre for Social Justice in December 2008. The report was highly critical of the treatment of asylum seekers, and particularly the denial of the right to work. When even the Tories are worried about the state’s treatment of asylum seekers you know you should be worried.
Indeed, James Graham wrote in this month’s Red Pepper magazine
“one of the sticking points in the Lib-Lab talks on which Labour was unwilling to concede concerned locking up the children of illegal immigrants. This pretty much says it all. There are a great many things that worry me about the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition but I am confident that we will end up with a freer, more human society as a result. And that is about as damning an indictment of Labour as it is possible to make” (p.12)
Is he right? In the run up to the general election earlier this year the Refugee Council, Liberty and the Scottish Refugee Council called on candidates to sign a pledge to “remember the importance of providing safety to people fleeing war, torture and persecution in debates on asylum and immigration”. 1,031 parliamentary candidates signed the pledge, including the men who are now Prime Minister and Deputy PM. Both also promised to investigate ending child detention at the Citizens UK leaders debate a week before the election.
Positive though these moves were, neither the election pledge on asylum nor the commitment to consider ending child detention are legally binding commitments to action. So now that the ‘new politics’ has been loudly declared, what can we expect for asylum seekers, a group quite desperately in need of a new politics? Early signs were good: Nick Clegg announced an end to child detention just 6 days after the general election. Surely this was a signal that a new approach was, if nothing else, possible. Unfortunately, just four days later Damien Green, the newly appointed immigration minister, announced that there would in fact be a review of alternatives to detention for minors and the current system would stay in place until this had been completed. Campaign groups were angered, with End Child Detention Now reporting
“when they said ‘we will end child detention,’ they meant ‘Keep on arresting babies’… We are witnessing an orchestrated attempt to co-opt children’s charities and refugee and asylum seeker welfare organisations in the hope that by including them in dialogue and a pledge of future action the new administration will secure their silence and compliance.”
What other indications do we have of how the coalition government will deal with asylum seekers? The coalition manifesto (aka ‘The Coalition: Our Programme for Action’) reiterated the plan for a review on child detention. It secondly pledged to “stop the deportation of asylum seekers who have had to leave particular countries because their sexual orientation or gender identification puts them at proven risk of imprisonment, torture or execution” (p.18). Again, this sounds good, and is notable in that it has not been the focus of such a high profile campaign as some other issues. However, as Bernard Keenan noted in the Guardian, “as a statement taken out of context, it is legally meaningless until it is translated into policy changes by the Home Office. On the face of it, it doesn’t really change anything.”
The manifesto thirdly states “we will explore new ways to improve the current asylum system to speed up the processing of applications” (p.21). Nothing new there. New Labour made the same claims in several White Papers during their reign but rather than improving justice for asylum seekers, it has led to a progressively more restrictive asylum system with fewer rights of appeal.
Other signs suggest that this old politics of asylum is likely to continue. On the 8th June the Guardian reported a leaked memo which indicated that “government lawyers have warned high court judges that last-minute legal challenges should not be allowed to ‘disrupt or delay’ a deportation flight to Baghdad due to leave Britain early tomorrow.” Forty eight men were deported the next day and have since reported that UK Border Agency staff used violence against them in the process. Two days later plans for ‘reintegration centres’ were announced, to legitimate deporting under 18s back to Afghanistan at a time when the news is awash with reports of the ongoing instability of large parts of the country.
Neither the new Immigration Minister Damien Green nor Home Secretary Theresa May, have yet made speeches on asylum. The picture so far is good in certain respects but scratch just below the surface and the old politics is alive and well. The acknowledgement of sexual orientation is to be welcomed, but it is unclear how the manifesto pledge will translate into concrete change. Child detention is an emotive topic and a good PR move. Should children be detained in prisons without charge, having not committed a crime, for unspecified periods? Few would answer yes and as a consequence an end to child immigration detention is unlikely to face serious political opposition. Whether this move will result in the splitting up of families or other draconian measures which are potentially equally as detrimental to asylum seeking children, however, remains to be seen. Furthermore, when it comes to adult asylum seekers, the majority of whom are single males, arguing for an end to detention without charge requires the decriminalisation of the language of asylum, something the coalition may not be ready for.
The 2010 general election was dominated, as so many before, by the unchallenged assumption that immigration per se is probably a bad thing but that we tolerate it because we know we need skilled migrants in certain sectors to keep the economy going. For asylum seekers the unspoken intersections of race and class in this story mean that their value to this country, or our duty of care towards them, is rendered meaningless. A deafening silence around the involvement of the UK in current refugee producing situations facilitates this displacement of responsibility. On these fundamental issues there is little to suggest that the new politics of the Lib/Con coalition will mark a clear break with the past. However, there are yet signs that the Lib Dems will be able to temper Tory prejudices and score some wins for asylum seeker rights. We watch and wait.