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Home > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Tamil Refugees & Asylum Seekers > Closed Doors: New Restrictions on the Rights of Asylum Seekers - Anne Owers,1988

Closed Doors:
New Restrictions on the Rights of Asylum Seekers

Anne Owers - Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, UK - Paper presented at a Tamil Conference organised by the Tamil Refugee Action Group in London - 28 January 1988

Tamil refugees have a special place in British immigration law and practice over the last few years. Their arrival has provoked restrictive new laws and practices which have tightened British immigration control and made it harsher and less humane for other non-European settlers and refugees as well as Tamils.

1. In 1985, it was the arrival of hundreds of Tamil refugees which triggered off the unprecedented decision to impose visas on nationals of a Commonwealth country. Until then, it had been unthinkable that Commonwealth citizens should require visas to come to Britain. But, even though Britain had received far fewer fleeing Tamils than many other European countries, the visa requirement was imposed to try to prevent them arriving here at all. The immediate effect was to reduce the number of Tamils arriving in Britain. The long-term effect was to pave the way for the visa requirement to be extended to five other black Commonwealth and ex-Commonwealth countries, whose nationals were identified by the government as ''problems" who needed to be sifted out before being able to arrive in Britain. Refusal rates for visitors from those countries have soared, and individuals have experienced great hardship, especially in cases of family illness and emergency.

2. In 1987, the arrival of a much smaller group of 64 Tamils who had arrived via Malaysia and Bangladesh led to the swift passage through Parliament of the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act, which gave the government the power to fine airlines up to 1,000 for each passenger they carried without valid documentation (including passports and visas). This meant that airlines were even more reluctant to carry undocumented passengers from visa countries, even if they had passed through a third country. It dramatically reduced the number of Tamil arrivals. It also had effects in other visa countries, as airline employees increasingly became unofficial immigration officers: for example, British children of Bangladeshi descent found it much more difficult to come to the UK to seek to establish their right to British citizenship.

3. The last two or three years have also seen the growth of attitudes and practices towards refugees and asylum-seekers which would have been inconceivable four years ago. The prolonged detention of asylum-seekers, for periods of over a year in some cases, was unheard of before 1986; the use of a prison ship, which almost sank during the l7 October hurricane, had been unheard of since Victorian times. The growing harshness of port procedures meant that refugees, after short interviews, have been physically and sometimes brutally forced on to planes and that there have been regular suicide attempts; but the actual suicide of one asylum-seeker held in detention in 1987 passed almost unnoticed in the British press. The summery removal of asylum-seekers, even while their cases were under consideration by the courts, has meant that lawyers have had to take the unprecedented step of seeking individual injunctions from the courts to prevent people being removed before their cases have been properly considered. The right to intervene on behalf of refused asylum seekers was also attacked: both UKIAS and MPs found that their access to asylum-seekers and their powers to make representations were severely curtailed during 1987. Tamils were the first group to provoke this new restrictiveness and inhumanity; but other non-European refugees, particularly Kurds, Iranians and Africans, have suffered from these practices as well.

4. Tamil refugees who have managed to act here and have been given exceptional leave to remain can also face hardship through family separation. The Home Office has said that it will not normally grant a visa for family members to Join someone here on exceptional leave. The "special hardship visas" which are allegedly available in Colombo are issued very rarely and under very restricted conditions. So Tamils who are already exiled face the possibility of seven years' enforced separation from their families as well.

The change of attitude towards refugees has led to a great deal of concern even among groups which are not normally associated with refugee or immigration campaigning. Charter '87 has brought together peers, judges and actors; Amnesty International has launched its first campaign on issues inside the UK; there has been the formation of an all-party (mainly Conservative) Parliamentary refugee group including a past Home Office immigration minister.

The reasons for the new harshness

The Tamil issue is connected with the much wider issue of European attitudes to immigration from outside Europe - the development of a '"fortress Europe" mentality. This first surfaced openly and publicly in Britain in the Home Secretary's introduction to his Immigration and Nationality Department's annual report in 1986. He said "The Third World is becoming increasingly footloose" - and identified cheaper international travel and the presence in the UK of settled black communities as increasing threats to Britain (and Europe)'s perimeter security. European interior ministers, including the British Home secretary, have been meeting regularly to co-ordinate European policy to keep out drug traffickers. terrorists and "unauthorised movements" (i.e. illegal immigrants and refugees). Any attempt to safeguard refugees' rights has led to wildly exaggerated statements from the Home Secretary: for example, in a radio interview claiming that if the court of appeal's judgement on the six Tamils was upheld in the Lords it would lead to 200,000 refugee arrivals; or his claim to the Church of England's General Synod that appeal procedures would inevitably lead to a build-up of 800,000 cases as in Germany. Throughout, there is the feeling of a country (or a continent) under siege.

What can be done?

There are various suggestions for action, which this conference will want to consider:

- the British Refugee Council plans for port procedures, which include a right of independent review for all asylum-seekers before removal

- the attempts to get together important people and decision-makers and interest them in refugee issues (Charter '87, the Asylum committee)

- possible use of the European Convention of Human Rights, particularly in cases of family separation

- working Europe-wide with other refugee groups and agencies

- developing a network in this country of refugee groups, lawyers and agencies to co-ordinate efforts and share information

It is likely that any change will be long-term - nothing much is going to happen immediately. It is important that any campaign involves both those directly affected and those with access to decision-makers. Above all, we need to be able to convert the general goodwill towards refugees and the horror that many people feel at what is now happening into a positive and co-ordinated campaign for change in laws and practices.

It is very appropriate that these issues are being considered at this conference. Tamil refugees have suffered from and have been the excuse for tightening and dehumanising British refugee and immigration policy and practice; they therefore have a unique contribution to make in developing and publicising the opposition and the alternatives to that policy, both in Britain and in Europe.

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