My fellow columnist Dr Bernard Trafford makes an excellent point in his piece recently when referring to the propaganda concept perfected by Joseph Goebbels, one of the most evil leaders in Nazi Germany – that by repeating a lie often enough it soon becomes perceived as the truth.
The salient question posed by Dr Trafford is whether there is the modern political will to renounce big lies which stoke up fear and hate and which appear to be on the increase. I suggest that a starting point would be with the modern media, in all its forms, which has the added social responsibility to separate propaganda from fact.
On the vexed question of immigration, political propaganda, popular myth, exaggeration and unashamed bigotry abound. The terms used are often ill defined.
An asylum seeker is someone who is fleeing persecution in their homeland and has made themselves known to the authorities, exercising their right to apply for asylum. We are often told that the North East is “flooded” with asylum seekers; the figures do not support this. Our region has a population of 2.6 million – there are less than 2,400 seeking asylum currently.
Refugees are individuals whose asylum application has been successful and who are allowed to stay, having proved that they would face prosecution in their home country. Refugees are afforded the same rights as permanent residents of the UK.
Migrants, mostly from European Union member states, move to the UK mostly temporarily for the primary purpose of work or study; they are entitled to be in the UK under Treaties of The European Economic Area (EEA). Many of the migrants arriving from the UK from Eastern Europe ten years ago – particularly from Poland – have since returned.
In practical and legal terms, foreign nationals coming to this country as asylum seekers to claim protection as refugees, form an entirely different category of immigrants than those that are native migrants from Europe. Although often described as such, they are not illegal immigrants.
Looking at the bigger picture, in the EU as a whole, asylum seekers are a significant issue. However the UK is ranked 11 out of the 15 in terms of asylum applications per head in terms of population.
Currently the Syrian Arab Republic is the main country of origin for asylum seekers. UNHCR data indicates that 48,400 Syrians requested refugee status in the first half of 2014, significantly more than during the first or the second half of 2013. Iraq came next (21,300 claims), followed by Afghanistan (19,300 claims), Eritrea (18,900 claims), and Serbia and Kosovo (12,300 claims). It has to be acknowledged that the individuals who make up these statistics have left their homelands in mostly distressing, stressful circumstances.
Migration pressure has escalated from diverse sources, resulting in humanitarian crises and creating sustained pressure on the receiving countries’ governments and local authorities, in particular in the countries closest to the conflict areas. Conflict in Libya has led to a massive displacement of people - 800,000 - to neighbouring countries, in particular Tunisia and Egypt. The conflict in Syria has created a wave of refugees - 2.9 million - in Jordan 604 000, Lebanon 1.1 million and Iraq 220,000.
For the majority coming to the European Economic Area, the first countries of entry are Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain. The largest number then gravitate to Germany, where (according to Eurostat) 126,995 asylum applications were recorded in 2013 (29.08% of the total). France took 66,265 (15.17%) and Sweden 54,365 (12.45%). The number of people claiming asylum in the UK is relatively modest - 30,820 (6.89%) for the last figures available for 2013.
Many of those entering the UK do so via Dover, either by gaining access to commercial lorries in the French port of Calais, in the boots of cars, or hidden in transport containers, sometimes with the aid of criminal smugglers.
To add to the difficulties of asylum seekers both here in the UK and elsewhere in Europe they become victims of the ‘big (political) lie’ that Bernard Trafford rightly alludes to. They are not put on housing waiting lists; they are housed under a separate system, asylum seekers are allocated a specialist hostel or (using local government terminology) ‘hard to let empty property’.
A typical asylum seeker is given less than £40 per week to live on – that’s significantly below the poverty line.
It is the big picture that is important and the ‘big lie’ that is so very dangerous.
Peter Troy can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org