Asylum Act passed

FRFI 170 December 2002 / January 2003

On 7 November the government satisfactorily concluded its ritual bargaining with the House of Lords over minor amendments, allowing the Asylum Bill, which had begun life earlier this year as the Secure borders, safe havens White Paper, to pass into law.

The main sticking point for the Lords had been the construction of ‘accommodation centres’ for asylum seekers in rural areas. The government managed to assuage their fears by promising initially to construct two centres in rural areas and one in an urban location, and to appoint an ‘independent monitor’ to assess the success and appropriateness of these centres once built.

Of course, the peers’ worry about building accommodation centres in country locations was not that the refugees sent there would be isolated, or that there would be no suitable facilities for them. Their opposition to the plans was instead a response to the fears of Tory MPs and voters that their idyllic English country life might be disturbed by an influx of impoverished foreigners whose presence would threaten their safety in some unspecified way, not to mention bring down the value of their houses.

By comparison, those on the ‘left’ of both Houses of Parliament who had voiced opposition to plans to educate asylum seeker children inside the centres, instead of at local schools, gave in with hardly a murmur. And so, while the Conservative Party jubilated about the behind-
the-scenes work it had done to get the Lords to argue for its agenda, Labour was able to rest secure that no part of its latest attack on immigrants had in any real way been impeded.

The new Asylum Act overhauls the ‘dispersal system’ introduced in the Labour Party’s last Asylum and Immigration Act in 1999. The system of forcibly compelling asylum applicants to move to designated parts of the country while their claims are considered is now replaced by a more streamlined version of the same idea, allowing for even less freedom of movement. Whereas, previously, dispersed people were made to live in whatever accommodation the receiving local authority considered suitable, they are now to be processed through a series of ‘centres’ of varying kinds.

The journey begins with a brief stay in a ‘reception centre’ such as the one already in operation at Oakington in Cambridgeshire. This is then followed by a longer period in one of the ‘accommodation centres’ whose location is currently being disputed. The government has now bowed to local opposition and agreed not to construct a centre at Throckmorton, Worcestershire, on a disused airfield, which has already had one recent controversial use – as a mass grave for cattle slaughtered during the foot-and-mouth panic. However, it will press ahead with plans to build centres on the other two rural sites already identified: at West Bridgford in Nottinghamshire and Bicester in Oxfordshire.

Those asylum seekers who manage to make successful applications, despite the reduced rights of appeal in the new Act, and the continued insistence by both the British government and the European Union that some countries are intrinsically ‘safe’, will be able to move out of the accommodation centres and be ‘integrated’ into British society by means of US-style citizenship classes. The remainder will proceed to the final stage prior to deportation: the detention/removal centre – indistinguishable from a prison. By the time they arrive at this last stop on the route, detainees will have little or nothing left to lose, so revolts, like the one which wrecked the newly-built Yarls Wood Detention Centre in Bedfordshire in February 2002, are likely to become a more frequent occurrence.

Nicki Jameson


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