A new Immigration and Asylum Act took effect in Britain last month (April 1), and refugee agencies are concerned that the legislation is designed to discourage asylum-seekers -- both genuine and bogus -- without caring enough for their needs. In the first of a two-part series, RFE/RL's Floriana Fossato reports on the new law and the refugee agencies' reactions.
London, 5 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The sight of British Home Secretary (interior minister) Jack Straw observing them probably surprised 11 asylum seekers who last week arrived at Dover, one of Britain's main entry points. As Straw inspected the port, the 11 emerged right in front of him, from where they had been hiding in tiny cavities cut in trucks.
The asylum-seekers were arrested, and the truck drivers received stiff fines.
Afterwards, the daily "Independent" commented that -- in addition to providing a helpful "photo opportunity" for Straw -- the incident confirmed, in the paper's words, that he had been "right to impose fines on truck drivers found with such human cargo."
Heavy fines for truckers are only one of the strict provisions now being enforced under Britain's new Immigration and Asylum Act, which took effect early last month.
Under the new act, asylum applicants can no longer settle where they choose while awaiting a decision. They are now directed to one of 13 designated areas across Britain, and those who authorities think might try to flee can be sent to detention centers.
In addition, asylum-seekers are no longer entitled to take benefits in cash. Instead, they receive vouchers redeemable for food and other goods.
The law is especially strict with clandestine immigrants who, like the group that appeared in front of Straw, are found on board a truck or other vehicle at a port of entry. They are fined $3,160 (2,000 British pounds) and have only a slim chance of winning asylum.
There's no doubt Britain's old refugee system needed repair. Last year, Immigration Minister Barbara Rote admitted that the country's immigration service functioned so badly that it had a backlog of more than 100,000 applicants. It took an average of 18 months to make a decision, and in some cases people waited for more than five years.
With some 70,000 applications for asylum last year -- a 50 percent increase over the year before -- the issue had become an embarrassment for Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor government. The subject was an easy target for Blair's Conservative opponents, with many saying that the number of refugees has grown because Britain under Blair was what they call a "soft touch." In addition, a significant part of Britain's mass-circulation press is openly, and often virulently, anti-immigrant.
Some observers say the new rules are playing to a growing distrust of asylum-seekers in Europe. Peter Beneke is the secretary-general of the European Council on Refugee and Exiles, an umbrella group of refugee-support non-governmental organizations, or NGOs. He says:
"What is happening in Europe is that all of the different countries look at each other and they are worried that they have the best situation [for refugees] and that therefore most refugees will come to that particular country. At this moment, for example, Britain feels that very much, so what is happening is that Britain tries to make the situation less attractive, as they call it. But basically [this] means making it worse for people who really need protection."
Tensions have been growing in southeastern England and in London, two areas where many asylum-seekers are now housed. In some rural areas, locals have expressed open opposition to the refugees. In London, high real-estate prices have created a severe housing shortage, fueling a growing resentment of the refugees.
All this is a matter for concern for refugee agencies such as Refugee Action. This NGO originally supported the dispersal of refugees around the country -- but only to areas where there was a thriving multi-cultural community with good inter-ethnic relations. Now, the group's spokeswoman, Amaranta Pike, says that the new program will give refugees no choice where can they settle. That means they may be housed among Britons who don't want them there:
"Individuals are going to end up in places where we do not think they will get the support that they need. They will be isolated, they will be away from services they need. And we are also very concerned about the quality of the housing. The Home Office has said that these are going to be 'minimum standards' and there are minimum standards that are in place and they will check those minimum standards. Refugee Action has concern that these standards will not be reached."
Refugee support groups also criticize the ban on providing subsistence benefits in cash. Under the new rules, refugees receive vouchers redeemable for goods worth between 28 and 41 dollars a week, depending on their age.
Nick Hardwick, chairman of Britain's main refugee-rights group, the Refugee Council, says that the voucher system will "stigmatize and demean asylum seekers." The charity agency Oxfam says the scheme is unfair because refugees are n-o-t entitled to receive the extra cash if they buy something with a voucher worth more than their purchase. Other refugee NGOs say that, without cash benefits, it is unclear how refugees can survive.
Unlike the U.S. or Canada, Britain does not grant refugees visas and does not have relocation programs for asylum-seekers. In most cases, asylum-seekers enter Britain either with a tourist visa or hidden in vehicles. Beneke of the European Council on Refugee and Exiles says all European countries should implement some form of refugee visa or relocation program:
"The reason why [visa or relocation programs are] not there at the moment is difficult to say. The so-called resettlement program is very big in the United States, often in an organized way helping refugees to come to the U.S. That does not exist in many European countries either, and we would want to encourage the European Union as a whole, in fact, to design a common policy on that, so that refugees could come to Europe from a country they already fled to."
But the new British regulations fall far short of representing a step toward a safe EU heaven for asylum-seekers. Home Secretary Straw said not long ago that under the new law, people will qualify for asylum only if they come from a country where they have suffered "the kind of persecution people suffered in the war in Kosovo." With that standard -- which rules out many, perhaps most, asylum-seekers -- the concerns of refugees and the British agencies seeking to help are understandable.