by HASSAN MAHAMDALLIE
"The new bill does nothing less than punish those who dare seek asylum here"
"THE HARDSHIP caused to torture victims and other vulnerable refugees is intended to deter asylum seekers from coming to Britain. We are for the scrapping of the Asylum Bill." So says the respected charity the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture.
The New Labour government has been exposed as hypocritical over the Asylum Bill going through parliament at the moment. On the one hand Tony Blair goes to the Balkans, "high fives" with Kosovan Albanian refugees and talks of their plight. Yet on the other hand Blair is pushing a bill through that makes it virtually impossible in future for those fleeing torture, rape, repression and murder to get asylum in Britain.
The New Labour bill even manages to outdo similar racist Tory laws. It is based on the idea that all asylum seekers are "bogus"-or "illegals", as Home Office minister Mike O'Brien likes to call them. The government has even gone so far as to accuse the Tories of "trying to wreck the government's attempts to clamp down on illegal immigration". The new bill does nothing less than punish those who dare, in the government's eyes, to seek asylum here.
At the centre of this attack is an extension of the "voucher" system. When the Tories were in office they penalised all asylum seekers who managed to get past immigration officers by cutting off their benefits. This resulted in asylum seekers being made destitute. Many local authorities then gave them vouchers to be exchanged for goods at the local supermarket. It was done to firmly fix in the public's mind that asylum seekers were "scroungers". In opposition New Labour rightly denounced the move as racist. But now it wants to extend it to all asylum seekers under the new bill.
The only cash asylum seekers will get is £1 a day for adults and 50p a day for children. This means there will be no money for emergencies, for phone calls, for bus fares, for sweets for the children, for paracetamol, for stamps or a thousand other items. Not only that, the vouchers plus "pocket money" only add up to 70 percent of the meagre benefits everyone else is entitled to.
In a parliamentary committee discussing the bill last week a bizarre exchange took place between MPs and minister Mike O'Brien. They argued as to whether light bulbs, window cleaning and children's jeans came under "essential living needs" for asylum seekers. As the Medical Foundation says, "The government's harsh and virtually cashless support package is designed, in its own words, 'to have a significant disincentive effect'."
Even now there are reports of supermarkets setting up a kind of apartheid, with separate checkouts for asylum seekers. Because the "asylo" vouchers are deemed for "essentials" only, there are instances of checkout staff refusing asylum seekers goods such as razors and shaving foam.
|Picture: JESS HURD
HUNDREDS QUEUE outside the Home Offices Immigration and Nationality department. Things will get worse under Labour
Asylum seekers are to be forced into "reception centres" across Britain. These are designed to isolate them. If individuals refuse to be located, however unsuitable the place, they will be cut off from all assistance and made destitute.
The government is continuing and expanding arbitrary detention for asylum seekers. Those who get turned down for refugee status will immediately be locked up before being deported. At the moment there are 800 asylum seekers locked away at any one time.
Any asylum seeker who appeals against the government will immediately be cut off benefits. This is designed to stop asylum seekers getting their rights under the law.
Immigration officers will get massive powers of entry, search and arrest. This is likely to lead to deaths like that of Joy Gardner, killed in 1993 after officers wound 13 feet of tape round her mouth during an attempted deportation. Immigration officers are to get training in using deadly CS spray, batons and handcuffs.
"Carriers" such as lorries and ferries face massive fines if they are found to carry "illegals". This will mean that asylum seekers, desperate to get out of their countries, will be thrown off lorries and ships and back into the arms of their oppressors.
SOCIALIST Worker spoke to ANDREW HOGG of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture about how badly asylum seekers are already treated by this government and how things will get worse:
"WE ARE already getting people drifting back to London having been dispersed by local authorities. They are coming back because they want to be close to their friends and families. They are destitute and are dropping out of the system. We are also getting calls from health professionals asking us for advice on how best to treat people who have been tortured. The new bill will make all this worse. The Tories' 1996 Asylum Act already excluded large numbers of asylum seekers from benefits. We have a Tamil client from Sri Lanka who is lying on a priest's floor in London. He has no benefits. The council tried to disperse him down to Devon, but he wouldn't go. I had in my office this week a client from Afghanistan. He and his wife are currently surviving on £30 a week in a bedsit in a small Surrey town. I had one man from the Ivory Coast who was sent to Bognor Regis. He was the only black man there and felt isolated and vulnerable. He spent most of his time locked in his room. Our clients need specialised and long term treatment."
THE MEDICAL Foundation treated more torture victims last year from Turkey, a member of NATO, than any other country. Andrew Hogg explained, "Torture victims from Turkey are mostly Kurds, but some are from left wing groups. In Turkey you are talking about torture which is clinical. People are beaten on the soles of their feet. They receive electric shock treatment and are sexually abused. One of our clients said that after she was given electric shocks they took her down and massaged her limbs to make sure that she didn't suffer a stroke-so they could torture her more."
THE government has been forced by other NATO powers to begin to take its "share" of Kosovan Albanian refugees. Yet originally its attitude to the Kosovan Albanians was the same as its attitude to all refugees-"we want none of them." This is clearly exposed by its different treatment of those now being airlifted in and the 10,000 Kosovan Albanian refugees who managed to get to Britain before NATO started its war.
The government has been forced to create a special category for the asylum seekers it is airlifting in. They have been given medical treatment, allowed to work or claim benefits and have automatic leave to remain for 12 months. This is in sharp contrast with the treatment of the Kosovan Albanians who struggled to get here last year. These have been shunned, treated like dirt by the authorities, denied benefits, forced onto food vouchers, told where to live and banned from working.
Like all other asylum seekers they have also been the target of hostile press stories. A Home Office report leaked last year and published in the Daily Mail stated, "Albanian mafia gangs are very vicious and make the Italian mafia look like a whist drive. Concern has been expressed in the Immigration Service and by the police at the involvement of Kosovars in organised crime. Kosovars are known for their ability with firearms." On 20 November of last year the Sun ran a typical scapegoating story about six stowaways-four Somalis and two Kosovan Albanians-entitled, "Six More We'll Have To Fork Out For".