Britain, like many affluent countries, has experienced a significant increase in asylum seekers in recent years. The number of people attempting to board freight trains at the Channel Tunnel from the Sangatte refugee camp near Calais reached levels of almost 50 a day at one point. The Sangatte camp was eventually closed down.

The tabloid press have had a field day reporting that Britain’s benefit system makes us an ‘easy touch’ for asylum seekers, but the truth is that many refugees coming to Britain can only look forward to being held in detention centres for long periods while claims are processed, and benefit levels are pitifully low.

Previously the government policy was to try to assimilate asylum seekers in urban areas. Experiences in Glasgow’s Sighthill, where an asylum seeker was murdered and others have been assaulted, and in other cities have now persuaded the government that the solution may lie in building detention centres in rural areas, leading to local resentment and little outlet for refugees in terms of life outside the centre. Three centres are to be built on a trial basis in England, with plans for a possible 12 more.

Affluent countries in Europe and elsewhere are experiencing similarly high immigration levels, and there are fears that this may lead to the rise of right-wing political groups such as those led by France's Jean-Marie Le Pen. The so-called Western democracies face a difficult fight with their collective consciences in finding solutions to these influxes of people, without resorting to extreme xenophobic measures, and the debate will probably continue for years to come.

Sangatte stopped accepting new asylum-seekers on November 15, 2002, and the French and British governments hoped to return most to their countries of origin, although Britain took in half of those identifed by the UNHCR as genuine refugees.

Since starting to work for the Scottish Refugee Council, or SRC, in October 2002, I've learned more about the treatment of asylum-seekers in Scotland. Before January, 2003, refugees reported to the SRC offices in Glasgow and Edinburgh when they first arrived, and began their asylum claims. "New arrivals" were placed in emergency accommodation and paid a subsistence amount of £5 a day to cover their food, clothing, etc - this is not much more than the cost of a Big Mac and fries. They stay in emergency accommodation until the Home Office and NASS (National Asylum Support Service) process their applications, and decide whether they should be dispersed into the community, granted Exceptional Leave to Remain or ELR, or returned to their country of origin.

Since January, refugees have been obliged to apply for asylum at their port of entry, or have all support denied. This will lead to widespread homelessness for refugees fleeing oppression and terror. February saw a call from Tony Blair to cut asylum applications by half by September. It is not clear how this will be achieved, but David Blunkett, the home secretary, announced that asylum claims from Albania, Bulgaria, Jamaica, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro would now be presumed to be unfounded as coming from so-called 'safe countries'.

I rather like Archbishop Rowan Williams. He’s indisputably intelligent. He’s quite reasonable about homosexuals, considering he’s a member of the Church of England. He believes in the church’s duty to offer moral guidance and he’s not afraid to offer it loudly, taking an unequivocal and probably politically reckless stance on Iraq. He is, on the whole, a Very Good Thing.

His recently expressed views on asylum (this is being written in February 2003), on the other hand, are the precise opposite. In an interview with The Sunday Times, he backed the idea of locking up asylum seekers in detention centres until their applications have been processed. He also said that without adequate preparation in local communities, asylum seekers could be seen as an “anonymous, foreign presence” that could stir up racism.

This makes me want to scream. It’s utterly perverse to assert that asylum seekers need to be better integrated into communities and in the same breath suggest we keep them indiscriminately locked up and separated for longer. You don’t deal with racism by letting racists off dealing with the groups they don’t like: you deal with it by demonstrating why they’re wrong. You don’t avoid the argument - you win it.

Here are some numbers. They are very worrying. According to MORI, 80%of the general public believes immigrants make up around 20%of the population. Joe Bloggs also thinks that the average asylum seeker gets £113 a week. And - and here’s the doozy, the scariest belief of all - the average public estimate of what percentage of the total global refugee population is taken by this country is 23%. Real answers: 3-4%; £37.77 - far less than regular income support, and delivered in vouchers, a humiliating way of paying for anything; and under 2%. The vast majority of refugees go to their immediate neighbours, often far less able to deal with the additional burden than we are. We have 148 000 refugees. In the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan, Pakistan, for example, has over 2 million. Even in Europe alone, we’re only tenth in the league table of asylum seekers relative to total population. The way our press reports it, you’d think the widely held view that we have a quarter of the world’s refugee population was a conservative estimate. You want to help stop the characterisation of asylum seekers as an ‘anonymous, foreign presence’, Archbishop? Then why not draw attention to the grossly inaccurate and emotive reporting in newspapers like the Mail and the Sun, instead?

This is where the real problem lies: perception. Language is important. The terms we use define the attitudes we take as a community. So, someone starts talking about bogus asylum seekers, and eventually the phrase enters common usage. It becomes received wisdom that it’s black and white, that they either need our help, or are monstrous cheats. But inevitably such decisions are subjective. Would you refer to someone who unsucessfully applies for a job as a ‘bogus job-seeker’? Of course not. The right to apply for asylum - even if you don’t end up getting it - is enshrined in international law. Yet still the language we associate with this debate is overwhelmingly negative: illegal immigrants (asylum seekers are never illegal immigrants, so this one’s just factually inaccurate as well as emotive), references to ‘scroungers’, good old Blunkett’s talk of ‘swamping’ - it matters, and it verges on racism.

Asylum seekers are not all terrorists. They should not all be locked up until proven not to be terrorists. It’s the wrong way round. You don’t lock up the general population in the hope that by doing so you’ll lock up the tiny minority of criminals too. Think about it like this - the men who recently murdered a police officer in an anti-terrorist raid lived in Manchester. Does that mean it would be OK to arrest thousands of Mancunians and keep them all locked up until they could prove their innocence?

If you followed the Primate of All England’s strange logic, you’d say yes. But not only are his and the Tory party’s views morally questionable - they’re utterly impractical, too. Iain Duncan Smith has, hilariously, advocated the security services vetting every single applicant for asylum, a gross misallocation of resources which would be far better used focusing investigations on serious suspects. The idea that the terrorist threat will be significantly reduced when fewer than 80 000 asylum seekers sought refuge here last year, compared with over 100 million visitors in total, is laughable. You do the math. This isn’t security - it’s victimisation. And it absolutely stinks.

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