, like many affluent countries, has experienced a significant increase in asylum seekers
in recent years. The number of people attempting to board freight trains at the Channel Tunnel
from the Sangatte
refugee camp near Calais
reached levels of almost 50 a day at one point. The Sangatte camp was eventually closed down.
The tabloid press have had a field day reporting that Britain’s benefit system makes us an ‘easy touch’ for asylum seekers, but the truth is that many refugees coming to Britain can only look forward to being held in detention centres for long periods while claims are processed, and benefit levels are pitifully low.
Previously the government policy was to try to assimilate asylum seekers in urban areas. Experiences in Glasgow’s Sighthill, where an asylum seeker was murdered and others have been assaulted, and in other cities have now persuaded the government that the solution may lie in building detention centres in rural areas, leading to local resentment and little outlet for refugees in terms of life outside the centre. Three centres are to be built on a trial basis in England, with plans for a possible 12 more.
Affluent countries in Europe and elsewhere are experiencing similarly high immigration levels, and there are fears that this may lead to the rise of right-wing political groups such as those led by France's Jean-Marie Le Pen. The so-called Western democracies face a difficult fight with their collective consciences in finding solutions to these influxes of people, without resorting to extreme xenophobic measures, and the debate will probably continue for years to come.
Sangatte stopped accepting new asylum-seekers on November 15, 2002, and the French and British governments hoped to return most to their countries of origin, although Britain took in half of those identifed by the UNHCR as genuine refugees.
Since starting to work for the Scottish Refugee Council, or SRC, in October 2002, I've learned more about the treatment of asylum-seekers in Scotland. Before January, 2003, refugees reported to the SRC offices in Glasgow and Edinburgh when they first arrived, and began their asylum claims. "New arrivals" were placed in emergency accommodation and paid a subsistence amount of £5 a day to cover their food, clothing, etc - this is not much more than the cost of a Big Mac and fries. They stay in emergency accommodation until the Home Office and NASS (National Asylum Support Service) process their applications, and decide whether they should be dispersed into the community, granted Exceptional Leave to Remain or ELR, or returned to their country of origin.
Since January, refugees have been obliged to apply for asylum at their port of entry, or have all support denied. This will lead to widespread homelessness for refugees fleeing oppression and terror. February saw a call from Tony Blair to cut asylum applications by half by September. It is not clear how this will be achieved, but David Blunkett, the home secretary, announced that asylum claims from Albania, Bulgaria, Jamaica, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro would now be presumed to be unfounded as coming from so-called 'safe countries'.