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Still No Room at the Inn?

One in 264 people alive today has had to flee their home.

In 1979 an 18-year-old Kurdish human rights campaigner, Fazil Kawani, fled to Britain from Iraq. That year 300 people applied for asylum in Britain. In the first eight months of 1999, 44,000 people did.

Such figures put paid to any illusion that on 31 December the 'century of the refugee' will be over. The 100 years which opened with the flight of east European Jews from Tsarist oppression ends with the image of fleeing Kosovans and East Timorese burnt onto the retina of the world community. And, with the rise in the numbers of asylum seekers knocking on the doors of Western nations, the problem is no longer safely 'over there', but on our doorsteps.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was set up in 1951 to help resettle the 1.2 million refugees created by World War II. Today its concern extends to over 22 million people - one in 264 of the world's population. The Kosovan crisis saw refugee camps on European soil for the first time since the 1950s. 'After half a century of dealing with refugees, we have come back full circle,' the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, commented sadly in May.

The 22 million people 'of concern to UNHCR' include 12 million refugees who cannot return to their countries; 3.5 million people who have just returned home; 0.9 million asylum seekers who have not yet been recognized as refugees; and 4.5 million internally displaced people who have fled their homes but not crossed borders.

Refugees have been described as a 'barometer of the world's political fever'. Their existence shows how far we still are from a world of peace, or of justice and human rights, as we enter a new millennium. And the issue of asylum seekers, the strangers at our gates, focuses something deep in the spirit of the affluent nations. The late Rabbi Hugo Gryn, a Holocaust survivor, described our response as an 'index of our spiritual and moral civilization'.

So what has changed in the 20 years since Fazil Kawani bribed his way to a student visa out of Iraq?

Little, perhaps, on one level: the persecution which led him to flee still continues, both in his own country and in others. Kawani had already been a refugee in 1975, when his family took shelter in a tented refugee camp in Iran. They returned to Iraq after an amnesty, but when the persecution resumed, Kawani and some fellow students began to campaign for human rights.

One incident stands out in his mind. 'In 1977 I went to visit my cousin in the jail to which all political prisoners were sent. He was sharing a tiny room with a man in his 50s, who cried when he told me his story. He was a taxi driver, who had been stopped by freedom fighters demanding a lift. When they got to their destination he was arrested, interrogated and tortured by the authorities. He had 12 children at home and he was the only breadwinner. The minimum sentence was 15 years.'

One night a Mercedes belonging to the security forces rammed a car which Kawani was driving. 'When I got out, the driver put a gun to my head and said, "This time you are safe, but next time you will not be so lucky. So shut your mouth." I couldn't stay at home and keep quiet, because I could see people were really suffering.' Friends urged him to flee to Britain, which was then selling arms to Iraq, and tell people what was happening to the Kurds.

In those days, he says, it was difficult to leave Iraq. 'Nowadays there are agents who make money getting people out of their countries; then I had no help. My only chance was to get a visa to study overseas: I had to bribe a senior official in the ministry of higher education. I was frightened that he would hand me over to Iraqi security who were looking for me. Instead, he said, "I feel sorry for you, because you are too young to be a refugee." '

Today, he says, it is much easier for someone at risk to leave their country. 'The demand has risen and so have the service providers. It's no longer a question of a church group getting a trade unionist from one country to another; it's big business and very sophisticated. Twenty years ago it was impossible for me to find an agent who could provide me with a passport - I had to get a government passport, and bribe the mayor to identify me with a different name. It was risky to cross the border because of landmines. Today an agent brings 30 or 40 Kurds from Iraq to Iran or Turkey; then another agent takes them to Greece; and another one on from there.'

Kawani believes that refugees and asylum seekers have increased because human rights abuses are worse than 20 years ago and affect larger groups of people, and because more of the victims are aware of their rights under international law and the possibility of asylum. The fact that human trafficking has become big business does not mean that all those who pay the agents' fees are not bona fide refugees, he stresses.

In his day, he says, persecution was usually targetted at outspoken individuals. Now there is more persecution of whole minorities - as in Rwanda or the Balkans - based not on what people believe but on who or where they are. And, with the superpowers no longer fighting out their battles through other people's quarrels, it is less easy for resistance groups to survive. 'Nowadays all the Kurdish leaders are coming to Europe because they cannot stand on their feet in the mountains without outside support.'

Kawani's first years in Britain were 'a hell' - in spite of what he describes as a generous reception from the host community. 'Physically I was here, but mentally I was there all the time,' he says. 'I felt sad because I had left my friends behind: I used to walk along the Thames late at night thinking about them. As a refugee I hated myself: what's the difference, I thought, between life in exile and persecution at home?'

Today Kawani is Coordinator of the Southwark Refugee Project and has been a much respected chair of the Refugee Working Party, which brings together representatives of Britain's different refugee communities. Yet he looks on the last two decades as a 'waste of my life'. 'Lots of things have happened at home, both good and bad, that I wish I had been part of. I could have listened to lots of songs, lots of jokes, gone to lots of wedding parties and New Years.... You have to be a refugee to know what it is like.'

Kawani's reception in Britain was very different from Geraldine's, 19 years later. She had been imprisoned and tortured in her home country after taking part in a demonstration against the government. When she arrived at Britain's Gatwick Airport in the small hours of a Saturday morning, the immigration officer told her, 'We've all decided, we European countries, we don't want you black people here.' She was sent to Tinsley House, an immigration detention centre at Gatwick Airport where 150 people are held, often for months at a time.

When I visited her there a few days later I found an articulate young woman who had held a good job in her country. Whenever she spoke about her family, who had disappeared, or her experiences, tears trickled down her cheeks. She had come to Britain looking for a safe haven and found only hostility.

Xenophobia about refugees is nothing new. In 1935, an editorial in The Daily Mail speculated on the dangers of accepting Jews fleeing to Britain from Nazi oppression: 'By offering sanctuary to all who cared to come, the floodgates would be opened, and we would be inundated by thousands seeking a home.' Nor, to be fair, is this attitude a purely European phenomenon. South Africa, which thanks to its rainbow miracle now houses the largest number of asylum seekers on the continent (though not by any means the most refugees), has seen a number of violent attacks on foreigners by local people.

What lies behind much of the xenophobia is the perception that many of those rattling at our gates are not 'genuine' asylum seekers but simply economic migrants, come to take our jobs and live off our taxes. There is an understandable fear that overstretched public services will be swamped, and that illegal immigrants are taking governments for a ride.

The UN definition of refugees, established in 1951, only embraces people who are outside their countries and who cannot or do not want to return because of 'a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion'. This definition even excludes people fleeing from war or civil conflict, although UNHCR maintains that they should be considered as refugees - and many governments are prepared to go along with this.

In theory the distinction between refugees and economic migrants is clear, but in practice it is often blurred. People may have good reason to be afraid and also want to improve their standard of living. Assessing asylum claims is an imprecise science - and important decisions are often made by quite junior officials who have been encouraged in a culture of disbelief.

Take Celia, for instance, a young African woman whose trade unionist father had died suddenly after exposing corruption in the company where he worked. Her mother fled the country after receiving threats and, when thugs turned up looking for her father's papers, Celia went into hiding at her boyfriend's home.

Because of the economic situation in her country, Celia knew she would find it difficult to find a job when she finished her studies. So when a friend in Britain wrote, 'Come here, you'll be safe', she bought a false passport (cheaper and safer than bribing her way to a genuine one) and set out, armed with exam certificates to prove what a useful member of British society she would be. All she saw of Britain was the airport, the detention centre where she was held for six months, and the road to the court where her appeal against the refusal of asylum was rejected. Today she is back home and, after some difficult months, apparently safe.

'In many cases both poverty and persecution or conflict are pushing people to leave,' Sadako Ogata told an audience in Mexico City in July. 'Confronted with an upsurge of people knocking at their doors, whom they have less capacity to absorb than in the past, and intimidated by xenophobic calls, governments build barriers to keep people out. The focus has shifted from the protection of refugees to the control of all those seeking entry, refugees and migrants.'

This shift from protection to control can be seen in the fact that in 1997 alone nine European countries adopted major new refugee laws. In Britain a new Immigration and Asylum Bill has spent 1999 going through the Houses of Commons and Lords, promising a 'faster, fairer and firmer' approach.

There is no doubt that reform is needed. Britain's asylum procedures have been chaotic, with a backlog at the end of August of over 85,000 asylum applications waiting for an initial decision - to say nothing of those waiting to appeal against the refusal of asylum. Since 1996 many of Britain's asylum seekers have been refused both social security benefits and the right to work. Instead they must rely on local authorities to provide shelter and food, through a 'cashless' voucher system, which is expensive, cumbersome and degrading. Other European countries have similar schemes which amount to what has been called a 'policy of deterrence by destitution'.

The new legislation will improve matters. It will allow thousands of those who have been waiting for several years for a decision on their cases to stay in Britain. It will speed up new cases and regulate immigration advisors, some of whom have preyed on the vulnerability of asylum seekers. But there are major downsides. It will continue to allow immigration officers to detain asylum seekers for indefinite periods - something unique in Europe and which affects some 700 people on any one day. Campaigners are fighting its proposal to extend the voucher system to all asylum seekers, allowing them the equivalent of only 70 per cent of normal income support.

It will also make it much more difficult for anyone whose papers are not in order to board a plane, train or ship heading for Britain. This will affect geniune asylum seekers as much as anyone. If Fazil Kawani had applied for a passport in his own name it is hard to believe he would be alive today.

Britain's tradition of taking in refugees dates back centuries. Between 1685 and 1700, for instance, 100,000 Huguenots fled to Britain. Historically these infusions of new blood have energized our economy and enriched our culture: such household names as Marks and Spencer, the Burton's clothes chain, Weidenfeld and Nicolson publishers and the Amadeus String Quartet owe their existence to refugees. The 28,000 Asians who came to Britain from Uganda after their expulsion by Idi Amin in 1972 met considerable hostility - but far from stealing jobs, many went on to provide them.

At the same time, it is clear that there is a limit to how many people one country can absorb, and the decisions involved are unenviable. Joe, an Eritrean accountant who asked for asylum in Britain in 1990, has some sympathy for the British government's predicament. 'There must be protection for people who need humanitarian rescue,' he says. 'But there are also people who exploit the procedures. There have to be controls. There is the financial issue, of how many people Britain can support, and also the social one, of how many you can accommodate within your culture.'

Joe came to Britain because as a student during Eritrea's liberation war he was constantly harassed by the Ethiopian security police. He points out that immigration controls often penalize genuine asylum seekers. 'People think that if they tell the truth they will be welcomed,' he says. 'But if the person who receives you asks a lot of questions, you feel desperate. Because of what you have been through, you are not able to cope with big hurdles. Those who are not genuine can cope.'

The root cause of migration - and to some extent of the refugee crisis too - is the vast economic gulf in the world today, where the richest fifth of the population uses over four fifths of the world's resources and enjoys 82 times the income of the poorest fifth. Shirley Williams, now Baroness Williams of Crosby, referred to this chasm in a speech at Guildford University earlier this year. 'We aren't going to be able to live with these inequalities without so many people banging at our door that we have to abandon democratic and humanitarian values in our efforts to respond,' she said. The fundamental answer is not to junk the values but to address the global economic issues.

For behind the crisis lurk familiar monsters - the trade imbalances which deprive the poor of a just reward for their labour, the injustices which skew the international economy towards the rich, the debt burden which siphons off money which should be spent on health and education, the environmental disasters which drive smallholders from their homes, corruption, the arms trade, ethnic jealousies and prejudices, despotism.... Immigration laws, refugee camps, all the best efforts of UNHCR, the Red Cross and hordes of smaller groups merely respond to the symptoms of a world which is not the way it should be.

'If there was peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia, people would not flow here,' says Joe. 'But international people do not want to be involved. There must be some solution if we all try to find it, but we can only find it if we are honest, if we are not selfish, if we think about the goodness of other people.'

During 18 years with UNHCR, many of them as regional representative, Iqbal Alimohamed has overseen the resettlement of the Vietnamese boat-people, helped to open Japanese minds to the needs of refugees and led UNHCR's work in Sudan in the early Nineties when the country housed one million refugees from neighbouring countries. He feels that much of the responsibility for the refugee crisis lies with Western nations whose support for human rights has often been selective and dictated by economic and trade interests. 'Human rights should surely apply across the board,' he asserts.

Alimohamed believes that fundamental changes are needed in the structure of the UN, to make it possible for it to prevent and resolve conflicts through binding resolutions. 'The Declaration of Human Rights is 51 years old,' he says. 'But millions of people have perished in genocides and wanton killing, and the world sits back and finds itself unable to act decisively.

'If conflicts do develop the international community must prepare itself, through the UN, to deal with the consequences. It must ensure effective coordination among the many human rights and humanitarian aid organizations, who, because of unclear and overlapping mandates, often step on each other's toes. And it is time that the mandate of UNHCR, set in the aftermath of World War II, is expanded to include all people uprooted and displaced by man-made disasters.'

Meanwhile people will continue to arrive at the passport gates of the West, asking for refuge and asylum. Some will be flying torture, oppression and genocide; some will be escaping poverty; many will be a mixture. 'The perhaps inevitable confusion between refugees and migrants can result in some of the latter being admitted as refugees,' says Sadako Ogata. 'But isn't it preferable to err on the side of generosity than to send people back to situations of extreme gravity and danger?'

Generosity to the stranger runs deep in the traditions of the world's great faiths. The Sanskrit word for guest or visitor is atithi which means 'without date or appointment'. The Hindu scriptures instruct, 'treat a guest like God'. Jews, Christians and Muslims trace their origins to Abraham who, according to the Book of Genesis, offered food and hospitality to three strangers, who turned out to be angels and promised that his elderly wife would have a son. 'Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares,' advises the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews. A Muslim friend describes how his grandfather used to walk around his village in the evening, and bring home any strangers who had nowhere to go.

In October, European leaders meeting in Finland agreed to develop a common asylum policy. As we enter a new century and a new Millennium, will compassion and generosity dictate the immigration policies of the West, or fear and stinginess? This is an issue not just for governments, but for individuals - for in today's Europe there are few towns and cities without refugees. Will we welcome these strangers who are, in fact, our brothers and sisters? Or, 2,000 years on, is there still no room at the inn?

Mary Lean is a volunteer with the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, whose members befriend asylum seekers held at Gatwick Airport. The names of Geraldine and Celia have been changed

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