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And so it begins

On 27th October, an event in Glasgow celebrated and rewarded the successes of asylum seekers and refugees in their efforts to integrate- and for those who are allowed to work- to recognise their contribution to their new society. The employers who play such a part in this were also rewarded and applauded by the 120 or so people who attended. In my speech I robustly and passionately defended the record of my company The Bridges Programmes in this work but warned the audience that with just over 6 months to go to the General Election that we knew that race, and in particular, immigration would be one of the main battlegrounds for votes, and with the main UK parties outdoing each other with tough talk, that while we may not know who is going to win the election we know that migrants both forced and voluntary will be the losers.

Expect lazy journalism, I warned, where the difference between those that flea from persecution are confused with, and lumped in with, those that come voluntary looking for a better life. Because wanting a better life is NOT the sole desire of people in the wealthy West.

It started the weekend before with the Defence Minister Fallon’s ill-chosen use of words talking about being swamped and under siege by foreigners. While he apologised later the damage is done the papers and media reported and revelled in it. Like the barrister who in court makes outrageous statements which a judge tells a jury to ignore, these things cannot be unsaid and Fallon and the government know it.

But even Nigel Farage couldn’t have predicted the gift that would be given to the anti-migrant cohorts with the intervention of the centre right self-serving mayor of Calais Madame Bouchart who crossed the channel – in more comfort we have to assume that many migrants- to lecture the UK Parliament no less on its benefits and asylum system. Bit of a turn up that, given that we certainly don’t want Johnny Foreigner to import their brand of trade unionism and activism and we don’t want to know that they think about the UKs involvement in illegal foreign wars, but suddenly it’s fine to have their views on our asylum system and its effect on asylum seekers based in France.

But before we begin to count the holes in Bouchart’s arguments let’s just for the sake of clarity understand what we are talking about.
Migrants as opposed to asylum seeks from outside the EU are not entitled to benefits until they can turn their entry visa into indefinite leave to remain which can be between 5-10 years. Migrants from outside the EU get entry visas to support a work permit for a job they are coming to, for study with restrictions on that too regarding benefits and ability to work, or as family members who have no recourse to public funds.

Migrants from inside the EU have to wait 3 months to be eligible for benefits but those are not the people the Mayor was talking about.
Migrants without entry visas are illegal and not entitled to benefits at all.

So the only people waiting to cross ,by her own admission, and evidence are people coming to claim asylum and just to be clear about this there is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker and asylum seekers are not migrants.

Got that?

Good. Then let’s get on with the blog.

The simplistic message from Madame Le Mayor was this: stop being so bloody generous to asylum seekers in the UK and they will stop coming to France and especially my back yard of Calais trying to gain admittance to “Eldarado” as she ironically referred to it. The UK government and the right wing press rubbed their little white hands in glee and will clearly stop at nothing, even colluding with the French, to promote the misinformation and vilification to little Englanders.

Now I don’t expect a reasoned and accurate review of the facts in the UK media anytime soon but here’s a small attempt to set the record straight.

Mary Tudor on losing England’s last foothold in France said when she died Calais would be carved on her heart. David Cameron might be thinking the same thing. The shortest crossing to the UK it’s been a place where migrants and asylum seekers have gathered for decades. In 2002 the official refugee camp run by the French and the Red Cross at Sangatte was closed down by Nicolas Sarkozy when he was Minister for the Interior, as much at the demands of the UK government as the French. In 2009 when President he went further demanded the destruction of the informal camps that sprung up when the formal camp was taken down. He called for the destruction of the Jungle as he saw it. When President Hollande got his hands on the Elysee Palace however, in a humanitarian gesture he said that a series of small camps with basic shelter and cooking facilities should be re-established in the North of France to support migrants living there, run by officially recognised NGOs to provide a vestige of humanitarian support, and more crucially to countermand the rise of violence, mafia like activities and people trafficking which had increased in the feral atmosphere of the informal and irregular camps. These small camps have now been set up around , though not in, Calais and surprise surprise but Mayor Bouchart has gone on the record to say she SUPPORTS this humanitarian move if it means that these people are no longer living in poor conditions or in her back yard in the suburbs of Calais. She is concerned she says not so much by the plight of the tragic individuals living there as the very same rise in violence, mafia like activities and people trafficking that she has seen develop in the last ten years. So perhaps this is the real reason Madame Le Mayor is exercised. With a view to her own political future and re-election she wants to be seeing tough on asylum seekers and in an example of NIMBYism that is quite breath-taking is blaming an asylum sysstem in another member state for being too generous. That’s a bit like blaming the rise of heart failure and alcohol abuse amongst the middle classes on a surfeit of Camembert and French wine. Ridiculous.
Eldorado it’s not
So let us examine this fabled generosity of the UK system. Asylum seekers are housed in community housing in a number of local authorities across Britain through a contract between private housing companies and the UK government to utilise poor quality housing stock that otherwise could not be rented. As they are living in the community they are in receipt of a single person’s weekly allowance of £36 from which they must feed and clothe themselves and use public transport. It equates to about 50% of income support levels and has remained static for over 5 years. They must live where they are put and report weekly (sometime more regularly) to a reporting centre to prove they are still around. For some in Glasgow the cost of that reporting trip is equivalent to a day’s worth of their allowance. They have limited access to health care, full access to schools for their children and no right to work. Initial decisions (80% are no) are normally granted within 6 months so they have no right to appeal to be given the right to work under EU rules that say if there is no initial decision within 12 months limited access to work can be applied for. Over half of the right to remain granted are as a result of appeal proving that the initial decision system is not robust. In England asylum seekers can access no support, help or training that might promote their speedy integration and entry into the labour market should they being granted Leave to Remain. In Scotland integration is deemed to be from day one so access to wider integration services is allowed including English lessons. So it’s not living in a cardboard box on the French north coast but it’s not exactly easy street.
The French system
Now compare this to the French system. Asylum seekers are housed in reception centres and fully provided with food, clothing, heating and other essential services such as French lessons and integration programmes, so there is no need to grant most of them additional funds though asylum seekers with families are able to access other French social service payments. They have access to Universal Health Care and education for their children. So its arguable that though asylum seekers in France like many other parts of Europe have restrictions on their movements thy are not materially worse off than those in the UK.

French politicians accuse their system of sending out a message that THEY are the soft touch, not the UK. So suddenly the UK system doesn’t look quite so much like Candy Mountain. So maybe the further motivation for Bouchart’s claims is less to do with people striving to get to the UK and more to do with what is widely recognised as a French asylum system in in crisis, at least that’s what a French Parliamentary report in April of this year thinks.  So is the rise of Mme Bouchart a cynical attempt by the French trying to blame someone else for their own mess, sacre bleue!!

The report highlighted long-drawn-out and ineffective procedures and spending way over budget. But, although the number of applicants has almost doubled in the last four years, it is still far from the record numbers reached in 1989 and 2003. And there is NO EVIDENCE what so ever that this doubling of numbers in the last 4 years has meant the numbers congregating at Calais have increased to the same extent. If anything the numbers have decreased, and interestingly the numbers of asylum seekers coming to the UK hasn’t doubled n the last 4 years but has been cut m by more than half!
And here’s another interesting fact about the inefficiency and failure of the French system: costs have soared 70 per cent since 2008 while the number of demands has risen just 55 per cent, so somebody somewhere is being a tad careless with the Euros yet French MPs say that relevant agencies are “chronically underfunded”. Interesting, non?
The report also targets long-drawn-out administrative procedures (sometimes 2 years before an initial decision against the UK’s 6 months, that frequently do not result in failed applicants leaving the country so it can’t be refused asylum seekers “dying” to get to the UK then as according to their own figures France says refused asylum seekers are staying put.

So maybe the reason for all the asylum seekers in Calais is less to do with the race for London and more to do are because of a poorly run French system but a system attractive enough and “generous enough” to mean people are quite happy to be in France. Oh and all those asylum seekers coming to France might just a have a little to do with that country’s colonial past and the fact they are happily bombing civilians in Syrian and Iraq.
Not convinced?
OK if you are still not convinced let’s look at what the people involved are saying about it all themselves. No-one yet interviewed by the BBC has admitted it’s the generosity of £36 a week that’s leading them to risk their lives. What they DO say is they believe that the UK respects and understands Human Right (ironically just as Cameron says we’ll ditch the Human Rights Act) and that British people are fair and kind. They also talk about wanting to work, and no they don’t mean on the grey market. I’ve never met a migrant or asylum seeker yet who gets up in the morning and says yippee I can’t wait to be hired by a gang master today and exploited and work for £1 an hour.
In 2002 the UK government commissioned a huge piece of research through University of Cardiff as to why people come to the UK as migrants and asylum seekers, with the aim of proving it’s all to do with the benefits. Unsurprisingly this research got buried because the results were NOT what was expected. Turns out it’s not the benefit system people are after (most didn’t know anything about the system before they got here) it’s because of our colonial past, the belief that UK does stand up for the underdog, that English is spoken, that we have a multi-cultural and diverse society and more recently, as we have sought to bring down dictators people suffering at the hands of these dictators expect, not unnaturally to my mind, the UK might help them get their lives back.

And every time since 2001 people have tried to prove that migrants and asylum seekers are here for what they can get rather than what they can contribute, the benefit system is never mentioned. And remember from way back up at the top of this blog no migrant as opposed to an asylum seekers has automatic right to benefits when they arrive. But Maybe Madame Bouchart knows something that we don’t.
When is a UK asylum seeker not a UK asylum seeker?
There is another element to this whole debacle that Bouchart surely is aware of but chooses to ignore. Thanks to an odd bit of EU legislation called Dublin II it states that if t can be proved that asylum seekers have entered the EU from any other member state other than that in which they have claimed asylum they must be sent back to that original state. So Mme Bouchart knows that even if lots of asylum seekers make it to the UK there is a very strong chance they will be sent back to France and that France will be required to process them, so the outcome might be that migrants/asylum seekers that the French system deem to be irregular, and not under their jurisdiction, might in fact be ruled to be, thus putting more strain on the system. Could this be a case of passing the buck?

It seems clear to me that while undoubtedly people are trying to cross form France to the UK it’s not in the numbers she claims and it’s not for the reasons she claims. If not a single person crossed to the UK in the next 12 months it would not educe the numbers moving to France though it might mean they don’t make a mess of her little part of France and she might stand a chance of being re-elected.

Colluding with this shameful piece of self-promotion by a minor French official by the UK government, to further add fuel to an incendiary issue, is stooping pretty lo even for them.
And let’s not forget while we get caught up in the finer points of asylum law and variations thereof, what we are dealing with groups of highly vulnerable people who have left their homelands under duress, whether war, famine, persecution or good old fashioned poverty and who are looking for a better safer life. Both countries are signatories to the UN Convention on Refugees and so have to step up to the plate. Playing political football with claimants is despicable, and diminishes both countries, especially when we have to accept that actions by both France and Britain since the second world war, in various parts of the world , has added to the sum total of displaced peoples.

The fact remains that both France and the UK play politics with all sorts of vulnerable people but this is the first time it’s been cross border! Perhaps we are seeing the start of a new Entente Cordiale.

And in a final and ironic twist there is an early day motion gathering momentum in the UK Parliament for the daily rate for UK asylum seekers to raise from the paltry sum of £5.23 a day to the princely sum of £7.17 a day. 80 MPs have signed it so far. Madame Bouchart and her new “compines” in the UK government must be hoping this doesn’t happen otherwise clearly France will empty and maybe not just of asylum seekers. But in the meantime the scaremongering can really get under way with her false claim screamed from headlines that migrants are
dying to get to Britain for our Benefits.
And so it begins