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Immigration debate roils Britain

Ahead of general election, a whistleblower and a hunger strike draw attention to asylum seekers.

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.