THE KEY myths about refugees in Britain have been trashed in a recent report that was commissioned by the Home Office. Vaughan Robinson and Jeremy Segrott from the University of Wales produced the report that investigates why asylum seekers end up in Britain. The report takes on the arguments poured out by press and politicians that refugees flock to Britain because it is a 'soft touch'.
The authors quote a typical comment from the Daily Mail: 'We resent the scroungers, beggars and crooks who are prepared to cross every country in Europe to reach our generous benefits system.' They interviewed 65 asylum seekers ranging from teenagers to over 50 year olds living in Britain between October 2000 and February 2001. The refugees came from various countries, including a large number from Sri Lanka and Somalia.
They were not driven by lust for 'generous benefits'. 'Many of those in the sample were fleeing persecution, violence or threats of violence. They were therefore more concerned about escaping from their country of origin than they were about which country they would eventually seek refuge in,' the researchers conclude. Refugees do not inevitably head for Britain.
Home Office statistics published last week show that Britain ranks tenth among European countries in terms of asylum seeker applications per head of population. Robinson and Segrott's research shows that a refugee's final destination is determined by a number of factors. Some in their study needed to leave the country quickly, so they did not have time to plan where they would end up.
Those who were forced to use an agent to prepare their escape could be at the mercy of that agent.
Some did not even know they were heading for Britain until they arrived here. The refugees also explained that agents charged more for some journeys. One Sri Lankan said, 'If I came to Britain I'd spend nearly £5,000. Australia is £7,000 and America is £8,000.'
Some of the refugees said they had wanted to come to Britain. 'The UK was certainly not viewed as a land of milk and honey,' says the report. A refugee from Iran explained, 'I wanted to go to France or Sweden but they say England is better because the spoken language is English. English is the most common language in the world so I said OK.'
These refugees had a vague image of Britain-rather than a detailed knowledge that they could end up living off vouchers worth £37.77 a week or be dumped in a detention centre. The image they had is the same one Tony Blair likes to present around the globe. 'I knew it is a democracy. You can think what you want. It's a free country,' said an Iranian asylum seeker.
The refugees expected to work to support themselves. Many had the skills typical of refugees arriving in Britain including teaching, engineering and healthcare. A woman from Iran said, 'I didn't know about benefit. I didn't know about social security. 'I said, 'OK, my life couldn't get worse.' I just thought I'll go anywhere and scrub the floor just to get out of Iran.'
Some refugees were influenced by the legacy of British imperialism in their countries. They felt that history would mean the British government would not turn them away. 'We wear white wedding dresses. That's not in our religion, and it's not really in our Somali traditional culture, but we had that from the British,' said one refugee from Somalia.
The researchers' conclusion is a direct challenge to New Labour's witch-hunting of refugees: 'Relatively little of a positive nature has yet been said about asylum seeking, which paradoxically continues to be cast by government and the media as a problem, a burden and a cost. The findings that asylum seekers are ordinary people driven by ordinary desires such as wanting to live in peace in a democracy that allows free speech suggest the need for a more benign and better informed debate about this type of migration.'
This study on refugees was not splashed all over the newspapers last week. Yet a report from the right wing Migration Watch group was discussed at length in the media. The group claimed two million immigrants would be pouring into Britain over the next decade.
These fantasy figures included wild guesses of how many refugees enter Britain illegally. Migration Watch is run by Sir Andrew Green, a retired diplomat, who repeats the dangerous right wing line that 'immigration is out of control'. His sidekick is Dr David Coleman, whose letters in the Times have supported racist beliefs that immigration from Commonwealth countries should be tightly controlled.
Their claim to want a 'debate on immigration' is code for pushing racist views and scaremongering stories about asylum which are seized on by press and politicians. For the true picture of refugees in Britain, get hold of Robinson and Segrott's research.
'Understanding the Decision Making of Asylum Seekers' is available from www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs2/hors243.pdf