Although to the outsider sometimes disturbing, I’m starting to see some comforting familiarity in Richard’s columns. Take this, from today:
“Some years ago, in the wake of the Afghan hijack fiasco at Stansted, I invented a spoof game show called ‘Asylum!'”
“Around the time of the hijack, I even invented a spoof game show called ASYLUM!, which is still doing the rounds on the internet.”
which made me think there might be more, and indeed there are, such as this gem:
“A few years ago, after the Afghan airliner hijack at Stansted, I invented a game show called ASYLUM! in which contestants from all over the world merely had to set foot in Britain to be showered with benefits, free homes and cars.”
“A couple of weeks after the Siege of Stansted, I invented a spoof game show called Asylum! Hijack An Airliner And Win A Council House.”
Although I still don’t find the concept amusing, I can at least now greet it as a part of the furniture – it’s an anecdote Richard and I share, because like him I know the punchline. Now, far be it from me, who has never invented a spoof game show in my life, to mock another man’s pride in what is clearly, to him, a beautiful child, but it seems to me that the punchline is somewhat flawed.
The thing about asylum, which should be obvious from the name¹, is that it is a type of refuge. We offer it to people fleeing persecution, war or threat to their persons. Such people tend to have trouble fleeing – if what your government really wants to do with you involves spark plugs and water, they’re unlikely to issue you with a passport or let you across the border as a substitute. If what you really want to avoid is your government having fun at your expense, a different tack must be taken. Since the legal ways are not options, the only options are illegal. The fact that you have needed to forge your passport or hijack a plane to escape almost guarantees you access to asylum – firstly because the fact you’ve gone to the trouble suggests something was up with you in the first place and secondly because, if your government did like you originally, they’re unlikely to look on you so kindly after you’ve been publicly on the run. Part of the problem with Richard’s putative game show, and his asides at Abu Qatada later in his article, is that asylum isn’t granted in these cases in spite of the illegal means by which the country was entered, but partly because of them.
The second problem again relates to the nature of asylum as flight from persecution, warfare, or threats to the person. All three of these make the hiring of a removal company to get your property out in good order, and the access to your bank accounts to do the same with your finances, somewhat difficult. Not only do you lose your country, livelihood and lifestyle, but you also lose everything you owned and had spent a lifetime building up. Even an asylum seeker who’d lived a life of Littlejohnian prudence and accumulation would arrive unable to support themselves. Throw in any problems with the language, the fact that qualifications may not be readily transferable and a sometimes unwelcoming local community and the alternative to a council house is homelessness and beggary. That is not my definition of asylum, and it is an unattractive alternative to winning Richard’s game.
Which is also a long way of saying that Richard’s prescience:
“It was supposed to be a joke but, as always, was based on fact. I can remember writing that none of the hijackers would be deported and they’d all end up living here permanently, courtesy of the mug British taxpayer.”
is not so prescient after all.
For Richard, this long interlude is merely a way of introducing his main subject, the ‘undesirables’ who were granted refuge. Now there are two obvious problems with this – the one raised above that hijacking a plane doesn’t make you an undesirable but merely someone desperate enough to hijack a plane, but also the simpler point that refuge is not immigration. The people who we would normally want to keep out, and Abu Qatada seems as objectionable as any, arrive fleeing persecution. To send them home is to condemn them to whatever it was they were trying to avoid. If that thing is sufficiently bad that we would take them if they weren’t ‘undesirable’, it is hard to see how we can morally send them back to it. To put it simply, there are some things you would not wish on an enemy. As soon as that’s the case, we’re stuck with them, and in our benefit situation previously outlined. It’s not ideal, but it’s the right thing to do.
Which brings us to:
“To add insult to injury, a panel of European judges has awarded Qatada £2,500 in damages for the brief period he spent in Belmarsh prison after 9/11.
Another ten foreign terror suspects held at the same time also received payouts ranging from £1,500 to £3,400 each.”
and the idea of the ‘right thing to do’. Having people such as Qatada, who we would normally send home but can’t, presents something of a problem. We need to find a way of preventing him from causing harm while at the same time being unable to deport him as we would normally. In such a situation, the Law is normally a good rule of thumb to follow. Were he not a refugee, but a UK national, he would be free to go about his daily business until he had done something which was against the law, be arrested for that illegal act, given an opportunity to offer a defence for his actions, and then tried in accordance with the evidence available. He wouldn’t just be banged up on the suspicion that he’d done something wrong before he’d had a chance to consider the charges. Were that to happen, he’d be entitled to compensation. Again, the facts that Qatada is here on a charitable basis and is not someone we’d have chosen to have on any other terms makes this compensation unfortunate, but those facts don’t make his claim for compensation any less compelling².
Which leads us to Richard’s crashing finale on who Britain should defend, citing the case of Binyam Mohammed:
“Binyam Mohammed is an Ethiopian citizen who was granted leave to live in Britain. In 2001, he decided he’d rather live in Afghanistan.”
Were these facts the case in full, Richard would probably have a point. However, I have not found anyone else asserting that he left to live in Afghanistan – Binyam himself says he went to see what the Islamic state looked like, and because he wanted to kick a drug habit away from his familiar haunts. He was arrested less than a year later, trying to return to Britain from Pakistan. Although born in Ethiopia, he’d lived in the UK since he was 15, and had been resident for 7 years. He’s worked here, paid taxes here, had leave to return here and was trying to return here. There is currently no evidence that he planned to commit any crime on returning. This is not quite the same as Osama Bin Laden, Richards reductio ad absurdum. This is just another example of someone who has been accepted under Britain’s protective umbrella – and so someone who should be accorded the same treatment as anyone else under that umbrella, such as Richard himself. Again, even if we believe that Binyam is an ‘undesirable’, we would have reason to protest him being arrested without charge, tortured, detained without the access of a lawyer and slated to be tried in a kangaroo court that had the power of the death sentence. These are not things that should happen to someone Britain had offered to protect.
Fundamentally, this all comes down to the fact that foreign people are just as worthwhile as people who have always paid taxes here. You don’t buy fair treatment under law, you don’t buy the right not to be tortured abroad or have a foreign government persecute you. There are things that cannot be done to you, and that means there are things we cannot send foreigners home to have done to them and things that we cannot do to them here just because they’re foreign. That’s not the crazed punchline to a game-show themed joke, that’s consistency.
¹ The derivation I have of it is from the Greek ‘sulon’, referring to the right of seizure, ‘a-sulon’ meaning ‘no right of seizure’. Even without this derivation, we have a long history as ‘asylum’ as a practical synonym for ‘refuge’, as in mental hospitals – refuges from mental illness.
² As a slight aside, it’s worth noting here that this has nothing to do (as Richard suggests in: “And until Britain repeals the pernicious ‘yuman rites’ act, here they’ll stay, indefinitely.”) with the Human Rights Act. Rights to asylum and treatment on reception are enshrined in international law and rights to a fair trial are traditional and would be mourned by Richard if they were ever threatened.