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Refugee Week logoRefugee Week began today, and there is a full programme of events going on up and down the country.

Also see this piece in the Guardian, in which Mark Haddon visits the Migrant Resources Centre in London.

There’s a sharp reminder of the way that the immigration debate has become derailed:

Mario, the MRC’s legal adviser, came to the UK in 1978, with his wife and sister-in-law, after escaping from Colombia, where the government had 68,000 of its opponents behind bars. They were terrified and knew nothing about asylum law. All the immigration officials who dealt with their claim, however, were helpful, courteous and surprisingly knowledgeable about Colombian politics. The three of them were granted temporary admission. The following year they were given full refugee status. ‘I can only be grateful to the UK for the protection offered to me and my family during those difficult days… After nearly 30 years here, I have two children and one granddaughter. We feel British. When I come back to the UK after visiting my elderly parents I always feel as if I am coming home.’

Mario’s is not an isolated case. I’ve spoken to a number of refugees who arrived in the UK 10, 15, 20 years ago. Most were impressed and surprised by the warmth of the welcome they received, and none of them went through the demeaning experiences that many of today’s asylum seekers go through.

What happened during those intervening years? Of course, there has always been racism and intolerance, but only in recent times have these sentiments been allowed to drive and shape official government policy.