Monday, 17 January 2011

The Land of Easy Money

Of all the news you have read this week, perhaps the most surprising might be that we’re living in ‘the land of easy money’. This was the description of the UK attributed to Ms. Ayan Abdulle, who incensed the Daily Mail last weekend after fraudulently extracting over £250,000 in various state benefits between 2004 and 2010. Ms. Abdulle has been jailed for four and a half years by a Harrow court for lying in her asylum claim, in which she described being attacked by militia in Somalia in 1998, when in reality she had been claiming asylum in Sweden around this time.

The phrase ‘bogus asylum seeker’ has become a sort of shorthand for the Daily Express and Daily Mail’s stance - it combines anger at the perceived laxity of the UK asylum system with a sort of general, undefined xenophobia. Invariably the stories eschew statistics in favour of individual stories like Ms Abdulle’s, and the language is heavy with allusion - references are made to the fact that Ms Abdulle has six children (read ‘feckless’), and a claim that she left Sweden because she ‘couldn’t be bothered’ to learn Swedish (read ‘lazy and insular’).

Left-leaning publications are equally prone to this sort of myopia when it comes to asylum and immigration. Instead of focusing on ‘bogus’ claims, the Guardian and the Independent are more likely to report a case where a legitimate asylum seeker has been failed by the system and made destitute, or give a platform to an asylum appeal like Peace Musabi’s. It’s likely that the horrors these people have run away from will be described in full, morbid HD. The intention of this type of selective reporting is no less politically loaded than the Daily Mail stories - the aim here is to place human rights above all other concerns, and to appeal to empathy.

Both the Mail’s and the Guardian’s stances are legitimate attempts to set the terms in which asylum and immigration are viewed by the general public, and in a healthy democracy it’s important to have opposing views expressed loudly and often. Failures in the asylum system which lead to human suffering need to be flagged up, as do flagrant abuses of the system. But there is a danger that the ideologically-motivated noise from both sides may drown out the more difficult questions that are best addressed somewhere in the middle, without individual examples, and with the rhetoric turned down to a background hum.

For example, is it possible to believe in the universal right to express one’s sexuality without fear of attack, while at the same time questioning the practical implications of offering asylum to anyone who self-identifies as gay? There will never be a way of verifying such claims, and while the standard of living in the UK remains significantly higher than in, say, Uganda there will always be a powerful motivation for people to abuse the system. But should this mean that we turn a blind eye to every such claimant, even if their lives are endangered on their return?

Or, can we balance the right of immigrants to the UK to retain their own cultural practices and religious beliefs while at the same time promoting their integration into mainstream British culture? Is ‘integration’ as a concept tainted with cultural imperialism, or is it a necessary process in creating a non-ghettoised and ethnically harmonious society?

Unsurprisingly, I don’t have any definitive answers to any of the above. But it seems clear that rigid ideology isn’t very useful in trying to reach any answers. Both online and IRL, talking about immigration or asylum in less-than-absolutely-certain terms can result in being called either a heartless xenophobe or a woolly-minded fantasist (or much worse), depending on who you’re talking to. But ambiguous questions require ambiguous approaches, and the immigration and asylum debate has been polarised along ideological lines for too long.