By Rahila Gupta
The onslaught continues. The UK Border Agency (UKBA) announced recently that it would be slashing the weekly allowance for asylum seekers from £42 to £35, a cut of nearly 20%. How can anyone survive on £5 per day when a two-zone, off-peak return journey by tube costs more than that?
The Daily Mail comments on this development with approval that immigration chiefs admitted they had been "too generous". This is compounded by the fact that they are not allowed to work. This leads to the kind of crazy distortion highlighted by Teresa Hayter, an expert on Britain's immigration regime: "It recruits nurses in Zimbabwe, but imprisons Zimbabwean nurses." A recent report (pdf) published by the Refugee Council surveyed Zimbabwean asylum seekers and found that 64% of them were educated to GCSE level and beyond and their occupations ranged from teachers, town planners, surveyors and transport managers to engineers, mechanics and IT specialists.
Destitution forces many asylum seekers to end up working for extremely low wages in catering, cleaning and construction, for example, without any protection against unscrupulous employers. It has been estimated that Britain loses up to £1bn in tax revenue from undocumented workers in this country. If they turn to petty crime to survive, Daily Mail readers will be the first to lash out against the "crime wave" without even trying to join the dots.
This is the latest wheeze in a series of policy initiatives designed as a disincentive for those who flee to the UK, seeking refuge under the Geneva convention of 1951 which was drawn up for the protection of those who have been persecuted. The UKBA site boasts that only 17 of every 100 applications succeeds, the implicit suggestion being that the rest are "bogus" and it is a sign of its vigilance that they do not succeed. However, it should give us some pause for thought that at any point in time there is a strong convergence between the rise in numbers of asylum seekers of a particular nationality and a country in turmoil. The top five countries in 2007 were Afghanistan, Iran, China, Iraq and Eritrea. Three of those countries would be on the list of anyone who is even casually interested in world politics.
There were about 23,000 asylum applications in 2007, the lowest for 14 years. The then immigration minister, Liam Byrne, boasted that stronger border controls were delivering the fall in numbers. But the rise and fall of asylum seekers is in direct response to levels of oppression in their home countries. There is no legal way for asylum seekers to come to this country. There is no "refugee" visa. They come on business, student or visitor visas and must apply for asylum as soon as possible – those who cannot manage even those papers because of the level of anarchy in their home countries get on the back of lorries and embark on the most dangerous journeys over thousands of miles.
They are not coming for economic benefits to a country in recession (we have seen a dramatic fall in numbers coming for work from eastern European countries for precisely that reason) but because their lives are in danger. Their very method of entry criminalises them and exposes them to extraordinary levels of suspicion from state and society.
Currently those granted refugee status get only five years' leave to remain after which time they may well be sent back. Surely Britain can afford to deliver its responsibilities under the Geneva convention in the right spirit, nor erode them by such mealy-mouthed measures.