Public opinion on asylum seekers in Britain has been shaped by the worst possible images: of young men, with their faces masked, breaking out of the French asylum centre at Sangatte, risking life and limb to make their way through the Channel Tunnel; of local communities in bitter protest at the Home Office's decision to create asylum accommodation centres in their midst without due consultation; of a grossly inefficient and poorly managed Government service, the National Asylum Support Service (NASS), wasting public funds in the most obvious manner.
On the one hand, racist attacks and even murder of asylum seekers has reinforced the negative stereotypes for the man in the street - asylum means trouble. However the Right has spoiled the opportunity for a reasoned and balanced public discourse on the subject. The British National Party, though minuscule in numbers, has entrapped the mainstream politicians to match their anti-immigration and anti-asylum tone and language, though there is a tradition of illiberalism in Labour Home Secretaries, from the time of Merlyn Rees (1976-79), who introduced the hated 'virginity tests' on Asian women arriving to marry their fiancées! The present Home Secretary David Blunkett's reference in April 2002 to local schools being 'swamped' by the children of asylum seekers, was evocative of Enoch Powell's graphic anti-immigration 'rivers of blood' speeches in the late 1960s.
Today, Britain ranks 9th amongst EU countries in terms of asylum seekers per head of population - with 1.7 asylum seekers per 1,000 national population. The majority of asylum seekers flee to neighbouring countries - Iran hosts 1.9 million refugees and Pakistan hosts 2 million.
In 2001 Britain received 72,000 asylum applications, and accepted around 50%. Earlier this year the Government presented to Parliament a White Paper, 'Secure Borders, Safe Haven - Integration with diversity in Modern Britain', with proposals to change asylum procedures and introduce new controls, such as biometric smart cards.
Various factors, some spurious and others justifiable, has made Asylum emerge as a large blip on the radar screen of public consciousness.It is necessary to address these concerns, recognise genuine problems and dismiss the myths. Asylum seekers to Britain are driven by 'push' and 'pull' factors. 'Push' factors are human rights abuses, war and repression; 'Pull' factors are language, family ties and work opportunities. Much has been made of the lax benefits regime in the UK, which supposedly acts as a magnet. The reality is that in Britain asylum seekers are not allowed to claim mainstream welfare benefits. A single adult receives about £40 per week - 30% below the poverty line.
The Home Office is currently undertaking a 12-month study entitled "An Evaluation of Access to Early Legal Advice and Representation in the Asylum Determination Process". Asylum is likely to remain in the public eye and a focus of government attention. The aim of this Theme of the Month is to provide a point of reference on key facets of the Asylum debate.