HOME SECRETARY Jack Straw defends his draconian Asylum and Immigration Bill as "firmer, faster and fairer". JOHN (not his real name) is a civil servant working in the Home Office's Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND). He "informed" Socialist Worker about the Home Office's immigration regime and the real intentions behind Straw's new bill.
JOHN SAYS that the election of a New Labour government, which claims to be more caring about refugees, has not made things at all easier for those seeking refuge in Britain. "Apart from details, it has been 'business as usual'. The new bill Labour are putting through is just a continuation of the old ones. As far as I can tell every government since 1971 has been of the same opinion-they have all been anti-immigrant, despite how they dress it up. When it comes to poor people they seem to keep a few people coming in as cheap labour to work in London's restaurants, hotels and jobs like that, but they don't want anyone else. The immigration laws are getting tighter and tighter. This bill is the latest attempt to make it difficult to stay in this country as an asylum seeker, and to deter people from coming in the first place."
The Home Office says that each individual asylum seeker's case is judged on its merits, but John says that is not true. In fact, senior officials make judgements about whole countries. If they don't think that a country is "refugee producing" for political, trade or diplomatic reasons, then any asylum seeker from that country is likely to be rejected. John tells of commands coming down from senior management to unofficially deny whole groups of asylum seekers their full rights.
"Take the Roma Gypsies from Slovakia in Eastern Europe. When politicians started to stir it up about them, saying they were 'flooding' Dover, senior management decided they would clear the cases quicker. They wanted to throw people out to deter others. They made the case workers speed up the appeals process. The Roma theoretically still had the right to appeal, but it wasn't the proper use of procedure. I heard there was a lot of argument. People turned round and said they wouldn't do what management wanted. As far as they were concerned it was a political decision that had been taken. The plain fact is that the Roma Gypsies are persecuted in Eastern Europe and persecuted here. They're scapegoats. Of course the new bill has this 'speeding up' of cases. Home Office ministers go before the House of Commons committee on asylum and-let's put it this way-they either lie or are 'economical with the truth'."
One continuation that John has noticed from Tories to New Labour is the leaking of anti-immigrant scare stories to right wing newspapers like the Daily Mail. "I could get sacked for talking to Socialist Worker, but there are people high up shipping stuff to the Mail. Nothing is ever done about that. And we all know the government is leaking stuff to these newspapers."
John says that immigration officers, who patrol the airports and sea ports, are often imbued with prejudice. "Some have a real attitude to people of a different colour or creed. The Home Office charter says everyone is to be treated equally, but many immigration officers don't abide by that."
John says that the immigration officers, who are to have massively increased powers under the new bill, often lock asylum seekers in detention as a matter of course. At any one time there are around 800 asylum seekers locked up in special detention centres, prisons and even police station cells. Yet they are not criminals. "Immigration officers don't know anything about the countries that people they are interrogating are from. So they just bang them up," explains John.
The vast majority of those in detention centres are black or from Eastern Europe. There are none from the "White Commonwealth" such as Australia. "Getting rounded up and detained doesn't happen to Australians from Earl's Court," points out John. "The figures speak for themselves. If you've got ten 'overstayers' from Pakistan and ten Australian 'overstayers', how many of each group would be banged up? Do they look for Australian overstayers? Is that where they put their resources?"
|Picture: JESS HURD
SAINSBURYS IN east London ensures that refugees are marked out in a separate queue
JOHN POINTS out that the new Asylum Bill is designed either to stop people from seeking asylum in the first place or to make it such a humiliating experience that people give up. He condemns the plan to strip asylum seekers of their benefits and give them food vouchers instead.
"It's degrading-paying people in tokens. It's designed so that everyone can see that they are refugees, marking them out at a shopping queue. The government are sending out the signal that seeking asylum here won't be very nice."
John also disagrees with Jack Straw's intention to cut off benefits to any asylum seeker who dares take the government to court. "A judicial review stops the home secretary making shitty decisions about people. That's valid. Why should people be penalised for pointing out to the courts that the Home Office has goofed?"
"EVERY GOVERNMENT in Europe was largely indifferent to the Kosovan refugees at one stage," says John. He says there had to be two tribunal rulings in 1997 before Kosovan Albanians were recognised as refugees in Britain.
"Yet even then they weren't granted refugee status because there were no staff to do it. It's only recently that they've started doing several hundred a week. There is a massive backlog. I see that Blair has suddenly taken an interest in refugees. But I've never seen any politicians take any interest in refugees in Africa. I've never seen a politician in the refugee camps left over from the Rwandan war, where you have thousands and thousands of displaced people. I've never seen Labour make promises to the Palestinians, where people are stuck in shitty camps. At the moment the politicians are showing sympathy for the Kosovan Albanians, but how long before the public are told they are a 'bunch of scroungers' again?"