Ross Clark

Globophobia | 16 October 2004

A weekly survey of world restrictions on freedom and free trade

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The Conservative leader Michael Howard says he owes everything to Britain for saving his family from persecution by the Nazis. It is just a good job for him that his own manifesto on asylum and immigration was not in force in Britain in the 1930s. Sandwiched between the personal passages in his conference speech Mr Howard announced a truly nasty policy.

If a Howard government takes office, one of its first acts will be to withdraw Britain from the 1951 UN convention on refugees. Presumably Mr Howard is calculating that this will curry favour with Ukip voters, who relegated the Tories to a humiliating fourth place in the Hartlepool by-election. Maybe it will, but at the same time it will earn Britain condemnation around the world — and rightly so.

Mr Howard is right that the asylum system has been abused in recent years. Yet, contrary to what many Ukip voters may imagine, the 1951 convention does not say that anyone arriving in Britain claiming to be a refugee must be offered a four-bedroom council house of their choice, that asylum must be extended to al-Qa’eda activists (it specifically excludes would-be refugees who have committed crimes against peace). Nor does it stipulate that even when their claims are demonstrated to be bogus, asylum-seekers must be allowed to stay in the country anyway — something which seems to happen routinely at present.

What the 1951 convention does say is that refugees must not be returned to countries where their lives or freedom are threatened. By withdrawing from the convention Mr Howard would be saying to the world that Britain would be quite happy to send refugees to their deaths if, by staying in Britain, they exceeded the Tories’ annual migration quota. Did it not occur to Mr Howard what would have happened to him had Britain had a migration quota in force in the 1930s and his parents had arrived on our shores just after that quota had been reached? It should have done. The Tories’ policy on asylum and immigration is a disgrace and should be ditched.