Every day as many as 300,000 people arrive from abroad at Britain’s ports and airports, and on a typical day about 50 or so of these will claim asylum. Is this a system out of control? The government would seem to think so. Since 1997 there have been 20 white papers, major policy statements or acts of parliament about immigration, most of these focussing on asylum in some way. Will Somerville’s book documents the changes and asks whether they have been effective.
He judges the government largely in its own terms – the targets it set and the policy changes it said it would implement. He argues that in some ways the government has done what it set out to do, but as much for reasons outside its control as ones for which it can take credit. So, for example, asylum claims have fallen dramatically since 2000, but would this have happened anyway? The government also says that community cohesion at neighbourhood level is promisingly high, but it doesn’t measure the views of refugees or working migrants to see whether to see whether that is how they feel too.
It is a bit like judging the health service by how many patients it handles, but not by whether they get better, or whether they feel satisfied with their treatment. In fact, there are daily press stories of asylum seekers treated in the most appalling ways, like the 13-year old Ugandan girl called Janipher who arrived as a rape victim from Uganda. Officials didn’t believe her story or her age, and when her baby was born she was separated from it. Five years later she is still fighting deportation, having survived spells of destitution and detention.
Curiously, no stories like these appear in Somerville’s book. Which is a pity, as an otherwise quite thorough appraisal of ten years of immigration policy lacks a vital ingredient – the perspective of the migrant workers or asylum seekers themselves. Little attention is paid either to the views of the organisations that represent them (now numbering at least 800). He points out almost in passing that there is now no legal way of entering the country to claim asylum – an extraordinary situation, of which most people are probably unaware. This makes it rather difficult for Britain to meet what used to be the declared aim of asylum policy – to protect the persecuted.
He points to some unsung successes. For example, the government consciously decided to allow more economic migration: the number of work permits has more than doubled and expansion of the EU has admitted over 500,000 workers from Poland and other new EU states. He reminds us that the rules as to whether different groups can access welfare benefits such as housing are extraordinarily complex. He suggests that ministers’ arguments that migration policy is driven by public opinion and the tabloids is at best questionable – haven’t Home Office ministers like David Blunkett set a restrictive policy agenda themselves?
For those (like me) who need a digest and analysis of what has happened about immigration since New Labour took power, this is an invaluable book. What a pity that it tells only half the story.
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