Erik Petersen: Logic and reason get lost when we discuss asylum seekers
OF the following 750 words, let's just go ahead and get the two most incendiary out of the way first: asylum seeker.
Two stories involving asylum seekers appeared in the Post last week. One concerned Hussein Khedri, who got a last-minute – but as of now, temporary – reprieve after being detained last week and scheduled for deportation to Afghanistan.
A local charity, the Arimathea Trust, expressed concern that he might be suicidal. They also said he was 19; the Home Office insisted he was 22. He has been in Nottingham since he was a young teenager and his Nottingham supporters base their assessment of his age on a medical test on his bones and teeth.
The other case concerned Mohammed Hossein Gholamy, an asylum seeker convicted of fraudulently receiving benefits.
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Both Mr Khedri and Mr Gholamy had seen their initial appeal for asylum turned down, and were appealing against the decision – as is, one feels the need to mention, their legal right.
A public relations professional might say that of the two, Mr Khedri has a case that's easier to sell.
A young man who came here as a boy, he has lived by the rules even when threatened with deportation to one of the world's most dangerous countries, a country where he wasn't even born (his Afghani parents fled to Iran, where he was born and spent much of his childhood before being deported back to Afghanistan, where he has barely ever lived).
Mr Gholamy was first picked up on a drunk and disorderly charge. It was then that authorities discovered he'd been working while barred from doing so – as virtually all asylum seekers have been barred since the Blair Government changed the law in 1999.
It is here that several definitions might be useful. First, "benefits". Asylum seekers do not receive the same benefits that British citizens do. They receive support directly from the Government – no more than 70 per cent of the absolute minimum a British citizen can be given.
It creates quite a choice – be "a burden on society" with virtually no money, or break the law by working.
If we looked at all this calmly, we might come to the conclusion that a system is not fit for purpose if it considers sending a young man who has spent his teenage years in Britain to one of the most dangerous countries in the world, a place where he has barely lived.
But calm discussion isn't what happens when you drop those two words – asylum seeker – into the mix.
Those words are a red rag to a certain kind of bull – a political bull who panders simple solutions to a worried populace, or a perpetually enraged one that spews anonymous hate on the internet.
Facts rarely do much good against this sort of anger, but let's try anyway.
Asylum seekers don't skip housing queues. They're not housed by local councils but directly by the state, typically in hard-to-let properties.
Nothing in international law states refugees must claim asylum in the first country they reach. The relevant document, the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, states they may claim asylum in any county they choose.
Britain is not a "soft touch" – the Home Office rejects between 70 and 90% of initial applications for asylum, despite most asylum seekers being from countries such as Zimbabwe, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Iran. Of these, more than half are overturned at appeal by independent adjudicators.
Then there's the big one. Some who might feel sympathy towards an individual such as Mr Khedri still worry at the prospect of Britain being "overrun" by asylum seekers. In 2010, the last year for which full data has been released, 17,916 people applied for asylum in the UK. It is not an insignificant number.
But it pales alongside 591,000, the total number of people who came to Britain in 2010.
If you're looking for the group of people most responsible for driving up immigration numbers, don't look at asylum seekers from places like Eritrea or Iran, look at economic migrants.
The four countries sending the most people to the UK are India, Poland, the US and Australia. Look at me. I'm from America, I've got a university degree and there are hundreds of thousands of people like me arriving in Britain every year.
For me, it's an economic and lifestyle choice. For others, it's a choice between life and death.