Britain's interior minister, Home Secretary David Blunkett, has stirred controversy by saying that newly immigrant children should be educated at asylum-seeker accommodation centers to prevent them "swamping" local schools. Immigrant-rights activists roundly condemned Blunkett's comments. They say they are especially inflammatory given the recent electoral success of French far-right leader Jean-Marie le Pen, and efforts by Britain's own far-right party to gain seats in upcoming local elections.
Prague, 26 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- David Blunkett, Britain's home secretary (interior minister), enjoys a reputation for blunt speaking. It's a trait that makes him stand out in an administration known for its slick media image.
As the minister in charge of domestic security, Blunkett oversaw tough new anti-terror legislation last year that angered civil-liberties campaigners and those on the left of his Labour Party.
Last summer, when riots broke out in several northern English towns, Blunkett threatened to use water cannons against the troublemakers, many of whom were youths of Asian origin.
And he has suggested citizenship classes for immigrants to teach would-be citizens about British culture and society.
This week, race and immigration again thrust Blunkett into the spotlight. The home secretary came under fire for suggesting that newly immigrant children should be educated at asylum-seeker accommodation centers to prevent them from what he said would be "swamping" local schools.
The proposal is part of a comprehensive review of legislation covering immigration. It's all become a sensitive topic in Britain in recent years, with much media coverage of "bogus" asylum claimants sponging off the state.
What particularly needled immigrant-rights campaigners was Blunkett's choice of the word "swamping." It immediately conjured up memories of a comment made by Margaret Thatcher in 1978, one year before she came to power. Thatcher warned that, unless immigration levels were cut, Britons were worried they might be "rather swamped" by people of a different culture.
Blunkett responded in character to his critics. "The idea that a word becomes unusable -- even though the dictionary definition is straightforward -- because an ex-prime minister used it 24 years ago in an entirely different context and in an emotive way is ridiculous," he said. But he did admit he could have used a less emotive word -- "overwhelmed" perhaps.
Still, his critics say this makes no difference, as the meaning is still the same -- asylum seekers are a risk, not a benefit, to British society. They say the timing of the "swamp" comment is particularly unfortunate, given that the far-right British National Party is canvassing hard to win seats in riot-hit towns in next week's local elections. And it comes amid shock in Europe at the success of French far-right leader Jean-Marie le Pen, who last weekend finished a surprising second in the presidential poll and who will now challenge incumbent Jacques Chirac in a runoff.
Prime Minister Tony Blair said le Pen's policies are "repellent" but said the far-right would remain a marginal force in British politics. He said his government is addressing concerns over crime and asylum to ensure that parties like the BNP do not "beguile voters" with their simplistic solutions.
But Tauhid Pasha said the government's tough talk on asylum seekers is actually playing into the BNP's hands. Pasha is legal, policy, and information director of Britain's Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. He said Blunkett's remarks show the government wants to keep asylum seekers "out of sight, out of mind" and actually encourages racist arguments.
"I don't think [the government is] taking votes away from the BNP or the National Front in the U.K. What you are in fact doing is inflaming the situation by increasing the hostility towards asylum seekers. If the government really wants to take votes away from the right wing it should be putting a positive spin on asylum seekers, recognizing them as a resource and a benefit to our community rather than a threat to our society," Pasha said.
Pasha said legally settled immigrants make a net contribution to the British economy. They are generally better-educated than average Britons, he said. And figures show that a significant proportion of applicants are given some kind of permission to stay, proving that their claims of persecution in their home country are valid.
Last year, Home Office figures show, the number of applications for asylum in the U.K. dropped 11 percent to nearly 72,000. The same year, nearly 11,000 people were granted asylum, a further 19,500 were granted "exceptional leave" and some 88,000 had their applications refused.
Afghans lead the top 10 nationalities claiming -- and receiving -- asylum, with more than 9,000 applications last year. That list also includes Iraq, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Iran, and Yugoslavia. By contrast, only a tiny fraction of applicants from Russia, Ukraine, and countries grouped together in "other former Soviet Union" were successful last year -- and none from the Czech Republic, Poland, or Romania.
Pasha said it's no easy ride for those who do apply. He said asylum seekers cannot work for six months and are entitled to around 70 percent of the same welfare benefits as U.K. citizens. They might be put in detention centers or be "dispersed" around the country. Last year a Kurdish asylum seeker was stabbed to death in a poor district of the Scottish city of Glasgow, an incident that stoked racial tensions in the city.
A Home Office spokeswoman who declined to be named said Blunkett's words had been taken out of context. She said Blunkett was reacting to a letter from a doctor in his constituency, who described being overstretched and unable to provide for a growing number of asylum seekers -- many of whom need interpreters.
The spokeswoman said the new accommodation centers would provide asylum seekers with "all their needs" -- not just education, but health care and legal advice -- for the six months or so they spend there.
"The fact is that constant -- for want of a better word -- 'pupil mobility,' i.e. lots of people coming in and out of the area, if the school is placed within an area used for dispersal, does make it disruptive and does make it difficult to plan lessons and plan around that for the school," the spokeswoman said.
She said the separate schooling would be of an equal standard to that in ordinary schools and would only apply until a decision is made on refugee status. "Obviously, if they're granted asylum status then they will be fully integrated, given refugee status and fully integrated into U.K. society and will obviously go to a local school and the education that they've been given in the accommodation center will help them integrate into the local school. If their asylum claim fails and they return to the country of origin they will have received a good basis of education in the U.K."
It may take more blunt speaking for Blunkett and Blair to refute the charges that the government is pandering to the racists. Today, they received a kind of endorsement from a distinctly unwelcome source -- Jean-Marie le Pen. He told journalists he is no more "racist than Tony Blair, who doesn't want the immigrants from Sangatte."
Sangatte is the Red Cross center in northern France, and the site of numerous attempts by refugees to smuggle themselves across the English Channel into Britain.