New Labour finally caved in to pressure over one of its key policies towards asylum seekers this week. The home secretary, David Blunkett, announced the government is planning to scrap the voucher scheme that forces refugees to live off just £26.54 a week, plus £10 cash.
This was the flagship policy of his predecessor, Jack Straw. He claimed a deliberately harsh policy would act as a 'deterrent' to refugees. Straw is now the foreign secretary who cheers on the US bombing of Afghanistan, with millions more refugees created in its wake. The Daily Mail and the Sun backed Straw's voucher scheme and bayed for even tougher measures against asylum seekers.
But two years of sustained protests from activists focused attention on the horrors of the voucher system. TGWU union leader Bill Morris threatened to lead a popular revolt over the issue. New Labour has finally given in to this pressure.
But the concession is not driven by compassion for refugees. Blunkett will not immediately ditch the vouchers and reinstate cash benefits. This means more misery for refugees, as a report from the British Medical Association and the Medical Foundation for Care of Victims of Torture charity showed last week. The doctors detailed cases of mothers watering down milk for their babies to save on their vouchers.
One man was walking 35 miles through the night to see a psychiatrist because his vouchers didn't cover his transport needs. Blunkett's concession over vouchers is attached to a much tougher plan to house refugees in camps around the country. A senior Whitehall source quoted in the Mirror last month said, 'David Blunkett has been spinning a line to Bill Morris about how he wants to get rid of vouchers.
'His assurances are not what they seem. He only wants to give them state support if they are in detention centres.' The camps are a capitulation to the Tories' demand for every asylum seeker to be locked up.
This system would replace New Labour's dispersal policy, where refugees were dumped into deprived areas around Britain with little or no support. Blunkett claims that people won't be locked into these new 'accommodation centres', but refugees are forced to live there to get any support. He will also increase the use of 'removal centres' like Oakington in Cambridgeshire, which opened a year ago.
Despite being called a 'reception centre', Oakington is the same as all the other detention centres around Britain. All refugees are locked up inside.
Over 11,000 asylum cases have been processed in Oakington. Lawyer Louise Christian explains, 'The advisers see someone on day one. By day two they are interviewed by an immigration officer. There can be a decision by day four, and there is a 95 percent refusal rate.' Private firms are already profiting from New Labour's detention centres.
A new detention centre run by the security firm Group 4 in Yarls Wood, Bedford, is due to open next year. UK Detention Centres runs the Harmondsworth detention centre near Heathrow airport. The company is a subsidiary of Sodexho, which runs the refugee voucher scheme. Tinsley House detention centre near Gatwick airport is run by the US company Wackenhut.
Blunkett's new strategy means a tougher regime for refugees. Vouchers will be replaced by a compulsory ID card that will continue to single out and stigmatise refugees. And his green card immigration scheme will only allow a few refugees with skills to be cherry-picked at the whim of employers.
Meanwhile refugees fleeing poverty and war will not be welcome in Britain. New Labour will detain and force most of them out as fast as possible.