I rather like Archbishop Rowan Williams. He’s indisputably intelligent. He’s quite reasonable about homosexuals, considering he’s a member of the Church of England. He believes in the church’s duty to offer moral guidance and he’s not afraid to offer it loudly, taking an unequivocal and probably politically reckless stance on Iraq. He is, on the whole, a Very Good Thing.
His recently expressed views on asylum (this is being written in February 2003), on the other hand, are the precise opposite. In an interview with The Sunday Times, he backed the idea of locking up asylum seekers in detention centres until their applications have been processed. He also said that without adequate preparation in local communities, asylum seekers could be seen as an “anonymous, foreign presence” that could stir up racism.
This makes me want to scream. It’s utterly perverse to assert that asylum seekers need to be better integrated into communities and in the same breath suggest we keep them indiscriminately locked up and separated for longer. You don’t deal with racism by letting racists off dealing with the groups they don’t like: you deal with it by demonstrating why they’re wrong. You don’t avoid the argument - you win it.
Here are some numbers. They are very worrying. According to MORI, 80%of the general public believes immigrants make up around 20%of the population. Joe Bloggs also thinks that the average asylum seeker gets £113 a week. And - and here’s the doozy, the scariest belief of all - the average public estimate of what percentage of the total global refugee population is taken by this country is 23%. Real answers: 3-4%; £37.77 - far less than regular income support, and delivered in vouchers, a humiliating way of paying for anything; and under 2%. The vast majority of refugees go to their immediate neighbours, often far less able to deal with the additional burden than we are. We have 148 000 refugees. In the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan, Pakistan, for example, has over 2 million. Even in Europe alone, we’re only tenth in the league table of asylum seekers relative to total population. The way our press reports it, you’d think the widely held view that we have a quarter of the world’s refugee population was a conservative estimate. You want to help stop the characterisation of asylum seekers as an ‘anonymous, foreign presence’, Archbishop? Then why not draw attention to the grossly inaccurate and emotive reporting in newspapers like the Mail and the Sun, instead?
This is where the real problem lies: perception. Language is important. The terms we use define the attitudes we take as a community. So, someone starts talking about bogus asylum seekers, and eventually the phrase enters common usage. It becomes received wisdom that it’s black and white, that they either need our help, or are monstrous cheats. But inevitably such decisions are subjective. Would you refer to someone who unsucessfully applies for a job as a ‘bogus job-seeker’? Of course not. The right to apply for asylum - even if you don’t end up getting it - is enshrined in international law. Yet still the language we associate with this debate is overwhelmingly negative: illegal immigrants (asylum seekers are never illegal immigrants, so this one’s just factually inaccurate as well as emotive), references to ‘scroungers’, good old Blunkett’s talk of ‘swamping’ - it matters, and it verges on racism.
Asylum seekers are not all terrorists. They should not all be locked up until proven not to be terrorists. It’s the wrong way round. You don’t lock up the general population in the hope that by doing so you’ll lock up the tiny minority of criminals too. Think about it like this - the men who recently murdered a police officer in an anti-terrorist raid lived in Manchester. Does that mean it would be OK to arrest thousands of Mancunians and keep them all locked up until they could prove their innocence?
If you followed the Primate of All England’s strange logic, you’d say yes. But not only are his and the Tory party’s views morally questionable - they’re utterly impractical, too. Iain Duncan Smith has, hilariously, advocated the security services vetting every single applicant for asylum, a gross misallocation of resources which would be far better used focusing investigations on serious suspects. The idea that the terrorist threat will be significantly reduced when fewer than 80 000 asylum seekers sought refuge here last year, compared with over 100 million visitors in total, is laughable. You do the math. This isn’t security - it’s victimisation. And it absolutely stinks.