Can Labour ‘out-nasty’ the Tories on asylum?
Phil Woolas’s defence of the inhumane Yarl’s Wood removal centre reflects Labour’s shift to the right on asylum
Simon Parker, The Guardian, Comment is Free, Thursday 25 March 2010, 15.00 GMT.
Phil Woolas’s response to a further damning report on Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre by the chief inspector of prisons shows that the government has to resort to scare tactics and lies to defend a policy that has been condemned by several royal colleges of medicine, the Faculty of Public Health, the former children’s commissioner for England, many leading Christian and Jewish faith leaders, all the major children’s charities, and 121 MPs — including 49 members of Woolas’s own parliamentary party.
It is simply untrue to assert, as the immigration minister does, that the only alternative to imprisoning children in high-security detention facilities such as Yarl’s Wood is separating them from their parents and putting them into local authority care. Australia and Sweden maintain families in the community even when their claims for asylum have been declared unfounded, and both countries have managed to achieve higher voluntary return rates than the UK’s as a consequence.
What is more worrying, however, is that Woolas appears to be backtracking on his own government’s commitment to seeking alternatives to immigration detention, such as the current community-based pilot scheme in Glasgow that is being run in conjunction with the local authority and the Scottish government.
In the runup to the general election it is increasingly clear that New Labour want to “out-nasty” the Tories when it comes to denigrating asylum seekers and refugees. Woolas described those detained in Yarl’s Wood as “illegal immigrants” even though he knows full well that the vast majority made perfectly proper and legal asylum claims. The fact that over half of the families in Yarl’s Wood are later released, as Dame Anne Owers points out in her report, completely undermines the minister’s claim that their removal has been properly decided by the independent courts. In fact hundreds of families who pass through Dungavel and Yarl’s Wood are subsequently granted indefinite leave to remain or refugee status because on closer inspection their claims turn out not to be “illegal” or “bogus” but well-founded.
An increasing number of families are being held in Yarl’s Wood under the “detained fast track” system – ie while their cases are still being determined by Home Office officials – a practice that has been condemned by the European commissioner for human rights and the European courts, but that the Leader of the House of Lords, Lady Royall, describes as “an unavoidable necessity for the DFT process”.
Woolas and his government are in clear breach of the council of ministers directive, which “provides for the special vulnerabilities of asylum-seeking children and minimum standards for arrangements for their welfare, treating the best interests of children as a primary consideration”. The directive came into force in UK law in February 2005 and requires states “to make special arrangements for the accommodation of children to meet their needs and best interests. This does not equate to detention”.
The Home Office’s increasing resort to scare stories about child trafficking follows on from a similar piece of nonsense that junior minister Meg Hillier came out with on the BBC’s Daily Politics show on Friday. She suggested that if the government stopped locking up children then childless asylum seekers would have an incentive to acquire a “get out of detention free kid” from a passing child trafficker.
The government’s constant talk of “illegal migrants”, “would-be child traffickers” and “frivolous” and “vexatious” abusers of the judicial system is intended to deflect attention from its own failed policies in treating asylum seeking families fairly and humanely, and to foster a climate of disbelief and contempt in relation to those who seek the sanctuary of our shores. No country can call itself civilised if it engages in the persecution of the persecuted, however popular the contempt for them may be among the public at large or how many votes a government that is desperately clinging to power thinks it may salvage.