Some weeks back, I was traveling on the Tube, London's subway system, when I was nudged by a woman in a grubby, dark-brown coat, a well-worn scarf around her olive-skinned face. The child in her arms was swathed so tightly its features were hard to see.
The woman held out a thin, bony hand and I pressed a 1 coin ($1.60) into it. As the woman and child glided away down the crowded compartment, the smartly dressed woman sitting beside me looked up from her Times newspaper. "You shouldn't encourage them," she rebuked. "Anyway, you ought to know they're mostly phony."
It is part of the nation's tradition to offer a haven for refugees fleeing oppression. But the British public is coming to feel victimized by what are perceived as economic, not political, immigrants who see the country as an "easy touch."
In a policy speech on Wednesday, opposition Conservative leader William Hague called for placing new asylum seekers in detention centers until their cases are decided, and deporting them within six weeks if claims are rejected. "This policy will have a significant deterrent effect on those thinking of traveling here without a well-founded case," he said. The government accused Conservatives of attempting to exploit the asylum issue for political gain. If so, they are hardly alone. Anti-immigrant rhetoric paid off for right-wing parties in recent elections in Switzerland and Austria.
Like other wealthy European states, Britain has seen an influx of foreign refugees and asylum seekers. Last year, more than 71,000 people applied for asylum here, a record. They pour into southeast ports from Romania, Slovakia, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Algeria, Afghanistan, and all parts of the former Yugoslavia, as well as Kosovo. British Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted in Parliament recently, "There is a genuine problem with asylum in this country."
The present situation focuses on some 104,000 refugees who are awaiting review of their asylum applications at coastal towns and in London. They are housed fed, and financially supported by local authorities during the process, which can take years. The total national bill this year for care is about 540 million ($853 million).
Popular discontent has prompted the Blair government to adopt tougher measures, including extending an existing law against begging to include asylum seekers who ask for money on the streets. The beggars, mostly women, often carrying babies, can now be prosecuted. Several cases have already been through the courts.
On April 3, the government proposed a new policy, switching cash handouts to vouchers for food and clothing. Maximum weekly payments would range from about $41 per child under 16 to $90 for a couple.
The charity group OXFAM is boycotting the vouchers. Nick Hardwick, chief executive of the Refugee Council for UK says, "It stigmatizes and demeans asylum seekers and makes one of society's most vulnerable groups even more exposed to potential hostility."
Barbara Roche, the government minister in charge of asylum issues, responds, "The scheme is intended fully to meet [Britain's] international obligations ... while deterring those who are seeking to evade immigration control by using the asylum process."
The government is also trying to disperse the refugees to other parts of the country, including Scotland and Wales. But this has run into difficulties. City authorities in Glasgow, Scotland sent a busload of Romanian asylum seekers back to London in mid-March because 12 women and 48 children were caught begging shortly after their arrival.
The other big control measure taken up by the British government will impose fines of more than $3,000 on truckers caught trying to smuggle in illegal immigrants.
Londoners in particular, but also citizens of coastal towns such as Dover, Folkestone, Ramsgate, and Harwich are full of complaints. John Turner, who commutes daily to London, says, "Of course I have sympathy for the genuine asylum seekers, but I am convinced many of these people are simply taking Britain for granted.... Enough is enough. Let some of the other European countries take their share."
The truth is that most other European states are taking their share, and many have run into similar problems.
Germany has taken in the largest number of Balkan refugees, but also has the toughest residency restrictions within Western Europe. It has started ordering Kosovo refugees to return home, saying ethnic Albanians no longer face persecution.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society