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Tassaduq Ahmed MBE Tassaduq Ahmed

Reclaiming the Asylum Agenda

The article as it appeared in the magazine.As yet another asylum bill is being passed, former Immigration Minister Barbara Roche outlines her own views as to how asylum can remain a positive rather than a negative agenda item for the Government.

One of the most worrying features of the current debate on immigration and asylum in Britain is the common use of the terms 'asylum seeker', 'refugee', 'migrant' and 'illegal immigrant as synonymous, with no attempt to understand the distinctions between them.

I believe passionately that we need to preserve the distinction between asylum and immigration. Asylum is the fundamental human right to claim protection from political or religious persecution. By definition, asylum is a narrow concept. It goes back much further than the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees and is a tenet of many world religions.

The 1957 Refugee Convention was the international community's response to the horrors of the Second World War; it was an acceptance that the world had failed the Jewish people and others who had suffered because of the Nazis. As someone who is Jewish, I feel strongly that the ideal of asylum is so precious that it has to be preserved and saved for these purposes. The international prevarication in the face of mass ethnic cleansing in places such as Rwanda demonstrates that there will always be a need for a strong refugee convention.

If the concept of refugee protection is undermined by conflating it with migration, we betray those who need it most. That is why in September 2000, I was the first Immigration Minister to say that immigration was good for Britain but that it should be distinguished from asylum. I called for a new century of migration and for a dialogue about managed migration rather than immigration control.

In order to ensure that the concept of asylum remains distinct, we need to build confidence in the asylum system. The initial decision-making on asylum applications could be carried out by an independent, quasi-judicial body. Both Canada and Denmark, using different criteria for entry, operate such systems. This is not something that could be implemented immediately, but it is a measure the Government should strongly consider. I think it would be welcomed by both applicants and the public. In the long run, it could also reduce the number of appeals.

Another worrying part of the debate is the increasing prominence of the group Migration Watch. I have been highly critical of the stance taken by and level of publicity given to this organisation. I think the creation of an independent body responsible for the dissemination of information, advice and statistics about asylum and migration to the public would help to dispel some of the myths about the system. It could also give informed advice to government on various aspects of policy. The Electoral Commission could be used as a useful template.

We also need to highlight the contribution that refugees can make to Britain. When I was Immigration Minister, I launched the refugee integration initiative to help those given refugee status or leave to remain to enter the labour market. I would like to see the encouragement and extension of projects such as'Refugees into jobs', which offer training to refugees so that they can join the skilled workforce.

I believe that the contribution made over the centuries by different groups of refugees and migrants is firmly entwined with any notion of what it is to be British today. Artistic, architectural and scientific legacies owe much to their efforts. Anyone who has ever had the good fortune to visit the Museum of Immigration at 19 Princelet Street in the East End of London, cannot fail to be moved by the fragile building that contains three centuries of migrant history. The museum is a remarkable unrestored Huguenot silk weaver's house. It was built in 1719 as the area became a new home and refuge to many Huguenot families. As later immigration patterns developed, a beautiful Victorian synagogue was built in the house by Jewish families. My mother grew up just a few streets away and her first job was in Princelet Street. Gradually, the area changed as a result of more immigration, this time from Bangladesh.

If you are lucky enough to pick one of the days each year that number 19 opens its door, what you experience leaves you in little doubt as to the vital importance of immigration as part of this nation's history.

We do not have an overt statement that demonstrates the historical status of immigration and asylum. We need a properly funded, national Museum of Migration. America has Ellis Island as a cultural beacon, we lack anything as significant. This gap should be filled.

The Museum of Immigration will be open on every Sunday in May between 12 and 5pm to celebrate France's 'Printemps des Musees' - the story of thousands of Huguenot refugees who shaped the surrounding area and wider British society.