Britain may restrict immigrants seeking asylum

Abuses prompt calls for changes in eligibility

April 13, 2003|By Patrice M. Jones | Patrice M. Jones,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

LONDON - As head of the Kurdistan Regional Government of northern Iraq's British office, Siamand Banaa has his hands full these days tending to refugees.

Men, women and children often pile into his modest two-room office in central London to animatedly discuss their renewed hopes for their native land and to request help on navigating the bureaucracy in their adopted country.

Refugees such as the Iraqi Kurds and others from around the globe have long been attracted to Britain because of its reputation as one of the most tolerant societies in Europe.

But a debate about the increasing number of refugees arriving in Britain has meant that the nation's open-door policy for asylum seekers may be closing fast.

With Britain at war in Iraq and with concerns about terrorism high, the asylum issue has become a hot topic among poll-watching lawmakers and the nation's bustling tabloid press, where acid-tongued editorials about abuses of the asylum process have become common.

Government statistics indicate that a record 110,700 people sought refugee status in Britain last year, a 20 percent increase from the previous year.

Asylum seekers from troubled nations such as Iraq and Zimbabwe accounted for nearly all the increase. The number of asylum applicants was 4,000 in 1988.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair made clear in a February interview that he would like to see the number of asylum seekers decrease by this fall.

His statements came amid a raft of new legislation and rule changes aimed at tightening controls on immigration. Under laws enacted recently, Britain can, for example, revoke the citizenship of immigrants with dual nationality who act against the country's vital interests.

The government used the legislation to strip the citizenship of Abu Hamza al-Masri, the fiery Egyptian-born Muslim cleric at a north London mosque who praised Osama bin Laden and hailed the Sept. 11 terror attacks as "a towering day in history."

Wanted in Yemen on terrorism charges, al-Masri had been under British police surveillance for some time but had been careful to not "cross the line," according to Home Secretary David Blunkett.

In a further crackdown, Britain is streamlining procedures to stop failed asylum seekers from delaying their deportations through lengthy appeals.

Human rights and refugee assistance groups argue that asylum seekers are not the problem because they represent only a small part of overall immigration to Britain and other European countries.

The new restrictions, for example, will have no effect on the flow of illegal immigrants who come clandestinely through the growing trade of human smugglers, critics say.

Meanwhile, the issues of terrorism and asylum have become entwined in a national debate that seems a worrying sign for those aiding refugees, such as Banaa.

"Already the departments and commissions in countries across Europe dealing with immigrants are beginning to be the same ones dealing with drug trafficking and terrorism," Banaa said. "That is a bad omen for the future."

Those who support stricter controls say the shifting policy point to perceived abuses such as the revelation that several Algerians arrested in January for allegedly producing the toxin ricin had applied for asylum.

The system also stoked the ire of critics when another Algerian asylum seeker suspected of being a terrorist was accused of killing a police officer.

Reflecting rising criticism, an opinion column in Britain's Sun newspaper recently complained that tens of thousands of Iraqis, including members of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard, are likely to seek asylum in Britain because of the war.

"Why should we grant asylum to our enemies?" the writer asked. "We've already got half the Taliban here."

Many refugee assistance groups have criticized the plan.

"There has been a rush for changes and new legislation that is a panic response that has not been terribly well thought out and productive," said Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Patrice M. Jones is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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