Europe gives asylum seekers tough love

Britain debates tightening laws to guard against terrorists and freeloaders.

In a cramped apartment in Nottingham, 100 miles north of London, Omar Hussein lives with five other asylum seekers and wonders what the future holds.

If a proposed new law passes, Mr. Hussein and his roommates could be segregated in special housing centers and required to carry special ID cards.

Mr. Hussein, who says that he fled Iraq after agents of Saddam Hussein (no relation) executed his father, is among more than 80,000 people who claimed asylum in Britain last year. But here, as elsewhere in Europe, the welcome mat is wearing thin.

Since Sept. 11, European concerns have risen that asylum laws are allowing terrorists free movement. Another catalyst for change is a common public perception that many asylum claims are false - and that newcomers simply want to freeload off the British economy.

The paradox is that the efforts to prune asylum transplants come as Europe tries to expand its labor forces with skilled immigrants.

In the fourth major shake-up of Britain's asylum system in less than a decade, a set of tightened proposals is expected to win parliamentary approval next year.

The changes, says British Home Secretary David Blunkett, make it possible for all asylum seekers to "be tracked as well as supported," and make deportation easier if their applications for asylum are rejected.

Britain now has a policy of dispersing petitioners around the country - to spread the cost of housing them and minimize the sometimes disruptive impact they have on their new communities. But under the new government proposals, asylum seekers could soon be required to live in special accommodation centers or camps if they want to receive financial support. They would also have to carry, for the first time, "smart" identification cards with their fingerprints and photos.

Nick Hardwick of the Refugee Council, a London-based charity, warns against "institutionalizing asylum seekers by placing them in accommodation centers" and "exacerbating the problem they already face in accessing basic services by introducing so-called smart cards."

The regulations, observers say, are part of a Europe-wide trend toward reducing the number of successful applications and deterring applicants.

"The walls of fortress Europe are getting higher and higher," says Mr. Hardwick, "despite the fact that human rights abuses across the world continue to soar."

But Britain's shadow home secretary, the Conservative Party's Oliver Letwin, bemoans the "absurd" situation in which "citizens of other countries, who are believed by our security services to pose a threat to our safety, are able to enter Britain and remain in Britain."

The number of asylum applications in Western Europe has risen steadily since the fall of the Berlin Wall, skyrocketing in Britain alone from 26,205 a year in 1990 to 80,315 a decade later.

All the member states of the European Union have signed on to the United Nations' 1951 refugee convention, which commits them to granting asylum to anyone who "has a well-founded fear of persecution" because of race, religion, nationality or political beliefs." But that hasn't stopped them from raising requirements for the newcomers.

Germany, which in the early '90s absorbed nearly 80 percent of all asylum seekers in the European Union, led the way. Among other changes, Germany replaced state cash benefits with vouchers to deter economic migrants. At least four European nations have set up accommodation centers for asylum seekers.

As they try to discourage some types of immigrants, European countries are attempting to lure others. Skilled newcomers are desperately needed to join western Europe's shrinking labor force and help support its aging population. As it did in toughening its asylum system, Germany has led the way in liberalizing its immigration rules, introducing a scheme that allows computer professionals to live and work in Germany for up to five years if they have either a job offer or a university degree. A recent government report found that Germany needs to accept at least 50,000 immigrants a year if it is to avoid economic decline.

The British government has said it wants to introduce a US-style green card to lure more than 30,000 migrants a year to fill Britain's skills shortage.

Omar Hussein is unlikely to benefit from these changes. He might profit, however, from a shift in popular attitudes toward immigrants that a debate on the economic benefits of immigration could produce. Migration research by Prof. Vaughan Robinson of the University of Wales shows that Britain's foreign-born population pays an estimated 10 percent more into government revenue than it takes out.

"British people always assume everyone wants to come to Britain." observes Hussein, who says his work for an opposition party led to the the murder of his father and the disappearance of other family members

"I didn't choose to come here," he says. "I just wanted to get as far away from the Iraqi security service as possible."

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