Note: this is a straight copy of the words of the column.
Last Wednesday, immigration officials arrived to deport an asylum-seeking family whose application had failed. They smashed open the door on their 20th floor flat. The husband threatened to jump from the balcony.
I live nearby and two asylum seekers asked me to help. Like all citizens, I was powerful. Eventually the man surrendered, his wife collapsed and was treated by medics, the children were taken.
They are not alone. Following Home Secretary John Reid’s “kick-them-all-out” instructions, 70 families in Scotland have lost their benefits and been ordered to leave. Most have disappeared. Homelessness is better than the torture and death they would have faced if they returned to their homes.
At the Labour Party conference in Manchester, I went to hear Immigration Minister Liam Byrne. Unadvertised, an asylum seeker addressed the crowd. His political beliefs in an African state led to imprisonment, a year on the run and an escape to Britain. His applications and appeals have been turned down.
Niall Cooper of Church Action on Poverty accepted that some asylum seekers would be helped to return. But he showed that many suffer unjust decisions and lack effective legal help. He condemned the New Labour policy of using destitution as a tool to make people leave, which in one case affected a woman who, along with her two children, suffers from rickets.
Why is this happening? Cooper read out headlines: “Kick out the scum” (Daily Star), “Britain: the dustbin of the world” (Daily Express), Stop the asylum invasion (Daily Mail). In fact, Britain only takes 3% of the world’s refugees, asylum applications are dropping and asylum seekers are not the same as the more numerous immigrants who come seeking work.
There is little evidence linking asylum seekers with terrorists. But these headlines stir up prejudice that might cost Labour votes if the government appears soft. Expediency requires harshness against asylum seekers. Byrne said he was new to the post and wanted to learn. He feared that immigrants might take jobs and force down wages. His statement was challenged from the floor. He said nothing about the policy of destitution and dawn raids. He did not reveal that he had already pledged himself to “a tougher enforcement of the rules”. I can’t see him standing up to John Reid.
I was cheered by two factors. First, the dignity and courage of asylum seekers in the room. Secondly, the large numbers of Christians who were present. Faith groups are in the thick of the campaign to protect and support asylum seekers. A forthcoming meeting will focus on organising shelters, daycentres, accommodation and food for the destitute. This is subversive Christianity, which believes that obedience to the gospel is more important that submission to repressive legislation. A leading campaigner has been so impressed by the concern of Christians that she has decided to become one.
The task of those who want justice and compassion to prevail will become harder is, as he wants, John Reid becomes Prime Minister.