Westminster: March 2010 Archives

Thanks again to Tom Harris for agreeing to swap blogposts on this issue: he's posted both here. I've added mine below as well.

THE TRULY tragic case of the three asylum seekers who committed suicide by throwing themselves from the high-rise block of flats in Glasgow has resurrected the debate on our asylum system.

We still don't know enough about this specific case to be able to make a judgment as to what actually occurred and why. The media have, at various points, described the deceased as Russian and Kosovan. 

One report suggested at least one of them was suffering from severe mental illness. They may or may not have successfully claimed asylum in Canada before arriving in the UK.

The fact is we don't know how much, or if any, of this is true. And it would be irresponsible in the extreme, in the meantime, to make hysterical accusations based on rumours and speculation.

Which is why, presumably, Robina Qureshi has been all over the Scottish media doing just that.

Robina, with whom I've crossed swords before, is the director of a branch of Solidarity housing "charity", Positive Action in Housing, who provide support to failed asylum seekers in Glasgow. Yesterday, in the immediate aftermath of the terrible news breaking, she told The Times that "if the suicides had anything to do with the Border Agency telling the victims that they could not stay in the country, then the agency was culpable".

But despite her qualifying her own conclusions with that "if", she organised a demonstration outside the Border Agency office in Glasgow today, telling Radio Clyde and anyone else who would listen that what happened in Springburn was a direct result of official threats to return the asylum seekers home. She's also called for a public inquiry, although since she's already decided what the facts are, I'm not sure why she needs one. If Robina had her way, every claim for asylum should be awarded and public servants who enforce the law are barbarians.

She also said:

We believe there should be a public inquiry into these deaths, and the impact of the UK Border Agency and its terror campaign - disguised as asylum policy - on the lives of asylum seekers who have lived here for years.

Yes, many of them have lived here for years - illegally and after being told repeatedly thattheir asylum claim had been rejected because there was no threat to their safety in their home country. And by describing asylum policy as a "terror campaign", Robina is demonstrating why no-one other than a few gullible hacks take her seriously.

Even the normally sensible James Mackenzie, who works for Holyrood's two Green MSPs, accused me of a lack of compassion in the comments I made to The Times. Fair enough. I've been dealing with this  issue too long to expect people to approach it objectively and without  recourse to emotive language (see his guest post above).

Even if it emerges that the deceased threatened officials with suicide if they attempted to remove them, surely that threat could not be allowed to be a veto over legal process?

When phoned by The Times yesterday, I knew I couldn't talk about this specific case - apart from the fact that we didn't really know what had happened, the deaths didn't happen in my constituency - but agreed to talk about general asylum policy.

But until the facts, rather than speculation and rumour, hold sway, it would be most unwise to make subjective judgments about this case, however tempting it would be for some to try to make political capital on the back of such a human tragedy.

As for asylum policy in general, my view, having dealt with hundreds of cases since 2001, is very clear: an asylum policy differentiates between those who have a genuine reason to fear persecution in their home country, and those who simply want to live in the UK in order to attain a better quality of life. Those who fall into the latter category must apply through the immigration route. To award refugee status to everyone who claims it would catastrophically undermine its very notion. It would result in an "open-door" immigration policy, and no-one seriously wants that.


Labour pandering to dog-whistle politics on asylum

Nothing tells you more about a government than how it treats the vulnerable, especially those who cannot vote. Labour's most striking domestic failure of this sort has been their approach to people fleeing persecution and torture: successive Home Secretaries since 1997 have sought ever more uncompromising ways to make their lives harder once they get here.

Very few of us will have experienced the kind of mistreatment which is commonplace amongst those seeking asylum. I'm not in danger of being arrested for being in the wrong political party, like my Green colleagues in Rwanda and China are. My family don't come from a marginalised group being subject to ethnic cleansing. I don't know anyone who's seen family members executed for attending peaceful anti-government protests. 

But do the thought exercise: what if that had happened? If Scotland had become as brutal and lawless as the Democratic Republic of Congo, if state-sponsored "disappearances" or a round of ethnic cleansing had begun here, I'd want to know I could seek sanctuary in India or Ireland or Indonesia and have my case taken seriously.

And in those circumstances, I wouldn't want to be spat at in the street or forced to present stigmatising vouchers in supermarket queues to buy the basics. If the Scottish expat community was in Delhi, I wouldn't want to be forcibly settled in Varanasi. It would mystify me to be told I couldn't work and contribute, then read Government Ministers complaining that I'm somehow scrounging off the hard-working locals

If I had kids, it'd fill me with despair to see them locked up in adult detention centres and subjected to levels of brutality that would inevitably remind me of what we'd all been though in the first place. If I'd had Kafkaesque bureaucracies ranged against me at home, a life of endless forms and interviews in a foreign language without proper legal support would seriously jeopardise my mental health: imagine if an irritating call-centre also had the power to deport you back into danger, or if they sang racist songs at you mocking your plight

Yet all of this is the reality of Labour's asylum policy, the legacy of their thirteen years in government. No Daily Mail headline has gone un-pandered to, no dog-whistle to racist voters has gone un-blown - and waiting in the wings is a Tory administration that backed every last clampdown. It's not a casual or frivolous decision to leave your home country and come here to face racist abuse, to become a stock figure of hate for tabloid editors and the politicians who love them, but there is no softer target to demonise, not even those "feral children" we are also encouraged to fear and hate.

Yes, we need a system which checks individuals' claims, not one which accepts everyone who just says the magic word. But the priority with this system should be to ensure no-one gets sent back to face torture. The price of someone without a decent claim being accepted by mistake is low if unfortunate, but the price of a false rejection could be someone's life. The system should move quickly to a fair decision, but we should bend over backwards and help those who apply to make their case. 

We Scots fancy ourselves (especially in our Tartan Army incarnation) as responsible visitors to other countries, and like to think of this as a welcoming country. In many ways it is, but without an end to Labour/Tory domination of asylum policy this will never be the whole truth.

Bending guillemots.

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birdspoons.jpgA star comes to North Berwick this weekend, and I'm sorry I won't be there. Uri Geller, best man to the late Michael Jackson, cutlery-influencer extraordinaire and regular litigant, is in town to talk utter nonsense about his psychic powers. 

Just over a year ago he bought The Lamb, a wee island in the Forth off the East Lothian coast. He reckons it's "one of the Great Pyramids of Scotland". Mmm.

Now he's coming to the Seabird Centre to give a talk and also, according to the Courier, staying on the Lamb, presumably in a tent. If he actually manages to land, which seems unlikely, I advise any actual seabirds he encounters to hide their cutlery. If anyone's going to the public Q&A perhaps they could also ask him why he claims to have ensured Scotland's exit from Euro 96

No chance.

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It's understandable for party campaigners to project confidence, but sometimes it's simply dishonest. Take the Lib Dems in Edinburgh North and Leith. 

On Twitter this morning, Andrew Reeves, their Director of Campaigns, claimed in a comment to Tom Allan, the Guardian's new microblogger, that (update: formerprofessional airport apologist Kevin Lang was "set to win the seat".

I disagree. I am confident that the Liberals will win just one Edinburgh seat - Edinburgh West. I'm not sure it's legal to make private bets, but, if it is, I'd be happy take all bets from them to the contrary on any of the other Edinburgh seats. My guess is that the money wouldn't go where the mouth is.
Michael Foot, whose death is being reported today, lived an extraordinary life, with his reputation unfairly weakened by Labour's 1983 election loss under his leadership. It's almost implausible to consider how far back his influence stretches, but I was struck by the note from George Orwell's diary from more than 70 years ago. 

It cites the defeat of a Socialist candidate in the July 1939 Monmouth by-election, and notes that Mr Foot had fought the same seat in the 1935 General Election. The Telegraph's snippet on it is below.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Westminster category from March 2010.

Westminster: February 2010 is the previous archive.

Westminster: April 2010 is the next archive.