Immigration debate roils Britain

LONDON, U.K. — As Britain's general election approaches, the debate over asylum seekers has reached a fever pitch here, with not one but two very public attacks on the Labour government’s handling of immigration.

In February, Louise Perrett, a civil servant-turned-whistleblower, publicly denounced the United Kingdom’s Border Agency (UKBA) as unprofessional, power mad and xenophobic in its handling of asylum cases. Almost simultaneously, a group of women embarked on a hunger strike at one of the country’s Immigration Removal Centres (IRC) in protest of the failures of the immigration system.

The system, according to critics, is failing both asylum seekers and British citizens. The UKBA, after interviewing an asylum seeker, determines whether or not the person has grounds to stay in the country; if not, the person is deported. The decision can take months, even years, leaving asylum seekers in fear of the infamous "night snatches" — police raids in the dead of night to take asylum seekers from their homes and place them in an IRC to await deportation.

In an unusual step for a civil servant, Perrett, who spent three and half months as a case worker at UKBA Cardiff, told the media that case workers treat asylum seekers with cruelty and intolerance. She told the story of one case worker who tested the claims of young boys that they were Ugandan child soldiers by ordering them to demonstrate how they would fight and kill.

Speaking to GlobalPost, Perret said, “because of the culture of the office, it allows [case workers] to bring their prejudices from previous cases, the media or their own instincts into the work place. And that should never happen in the Civil Service.”

She also blamed the government for failing to monitor its staff, for giving a very difficult job — that ultimately decides the fate of those claiming asylum — to mostly young people with little life experience. “It is like state-sponsored persecution … . To equip someone with that power after only five weeks training is frightening.”

Perrett also drew attention to the clandestine manner in which the UKBA operates, saying there is no CCTV monitoring in interview rooms.

“What are we protecting, and what are we hiding?” Perrett asked. “People think because we are the British government we are going to be fair and honest and open.”

The national press further called into question the fairness of the British government when it reported that women participating in a hunger strike at the Yarl’s Wood removal center in Bedfordshire were suffering human rights violations. The media claimed that the 80 women involved in the protest were being denied access to water and toilets and suffering physical and mental abuse from the officers at the center.

Home Office Minister Meg Hillier accused the media of misrepresenting the situation, claiming articles were based on “inaccurate and fabricated statements.” She denied claims of violence and aggression at the hands of IRC staff.

But Conservative Member of Parliament Alistair Burt cast doubt on the Home Office's defense when he told the House of Commons, “Women held in the corridor were not allowed access to food, water or toilet facilities during the protest. Those were available if they left the corridor and therefore the protest, but they were not allowed to rejoin.”

Moji Daniels, a Nigerian asylum seeker held at Yarl’s Wood, said that she is still participating in the strike in protest of the actions by IRC staff.

“I feel so abused. I don’t understand how they can treat us like that,” Daniels said. Like many of the other women in the center, she is still waiting to hear about her claim for asylum. Daniels applied in 2005, and her application is still pending. “Civil servants are said to be lazy but the immigration lot are the laziest. How long does it take?”

Caroline Beatty, who works with asylum seekers living in Bristol, said the system is “unbelievably frustrating.” Asylum seekers are normally not permitted to work, so they can spend years living in destitution while they wait for a decision. During that period, they are completely isolated from the wider community. This allows misconceptions and prejudices to flourish in British society.

In response to a reporter's questions, about half of those asked in an informal poll said they believed asylum seekers were just coming to the U.K. for handouts. Many also believed that asylum seekers were lying about their reasons for seeking refuge. However, many respondents also confessed to ignorance about the immigration situation, blaming the government and the media for a lack  of information.

Beatty traces such views to the government playing on the human tendency to fear outsiders, and using asylum seekers as a scapegoat.

“They are not choosing to come to the U.K., they are choosing to leave their country,” she said. “That is important to know.”

If the British public is unsure about where it stands on immigration, political parties are lost. The far-right British National Party (BNP) is the only party with a clear immigration policy: keeping “Britain British” by removing all asylum seekers, stopping immigration and keeping the "minorities minorities." The stance has gained the party support from people disillusioned by mainstream parties' failure to tackle the issue. The BNP’s growing support is a cause for concern for many who fear the group — which was recently forced by a legal challenge to remove a clause from its constitution that barred non-whites from joining — gaining a stronghold.

With the general election scheduled for May 6, the debate over immigration is sure to intensify.