Howardís 'false' anti-immigrant claims defy UN and churches
Conservative leader Michael Howard has pitted himself against senior church figures, a UN spokesperson and groups working with refugees, migrants and asylum seekers by making a hard line anti-immigration stance central to his partyís election platform.
The Tory leader has also been accused of using bogus claims to scare voters into thinking they are threatened by asylum seekers. Church leaders and others are concerned that Labour will be further drawn into the anti-migrant assumptions of the election ëdebateí, with only the Liberal Democrats (in a limited way) and the Greens (more explicitly) apparently willing to resist the rising tide of hate and misinformation.
Over the weekend Mr Howard and other politicians were accused by a British representative of the United Nations refugee agency of indulging in "political opportunism" and of encouraging ìanti-foreigner sentimentî.
The sharply worded rebuke came ahead of the Conservative manifesto launch yesterday, and of a speech in which Mr Howard accused prime minister Tony Blair of wanting to "pussyfoot around" the issue.
The British representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Anne Dawson-Shepherd, said the Conservatives were making false claims about asylum seekers. She pleaded with them to "stick to the facts", according to The Independent on Sunday newspaper.
Said Ms Dawson-Shepherd: "UNHCR is terribly worried, as among some quarters the crisis rhetoric and lumping of asylum with immigration issues together continues, often fuelled by thinly disguised xenophobia and political opportunism."
The statement was apparently provoked by a claim put out by the Conservatives in defence of their much ridiculed promise to set up offshore centres where asylum seekers can be held while their claims are processed.
The Conservatives issued a press release claiming that the policy would cut the cost of immigration by £897m a year. It added: "The EU and the UNHCR have set up five pilot schemes for overseas processing centres in Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya."
But that claim was contradicted outright by Ms Dawson-Shepherd. "It is not correct that overseas processing centres have been established," she said. "Certainly this would not happen in countries with poor human rights records, which are also non-signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention."
Mr Howard denies that his anti-asylum seeker and refugee stance is racist. His own relatives arrived in Britain after fleeing persecution.
But the Conservative leaderís critics on the immigration issue, including the Churchesí Commission for Racial Justice, point out that irrespective of his personal motives, alarmist rhetoric from both the main political parties is heightening public prejudice - particularly when linked to vitriolic comment in the tabloid press.
Charles Wardle, a former Tory immigration minister, has also denounced current Conservative immigration policy as "unworkable". Britainís churches have also recently warned  that asylum seekers and immigrants should not be treated by politicians as political footballs.
Commenting on the tenor of the debate, the Rev Vaughan Jones, an Ekklesia associate and director of Praxis said: ìPolitical leadership has been very weak in defence of those being tortured and oppressed. However the churches have consistently supported the right of asylum both in its spirit and its letterÖ The debate surrounding both asylum and immigration has been severely obscured by political leadership and the media. The Christian duty in politics is to open up the truth.î
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has also called on politicians from all parties to refrain from using fear to manipulate the debate. He has said that economic, environmental and social justice to be the key themes of political argument and conversation.
The Christian think tank Ekklesia, which says that Britain should be welcoming towards those fleeing violence and injustice, is co-sponsoring a Westminster Policy Forum discussion on immigration on Wednesday 27th April at 6.30pm at St Matthew's church in Westminster.
The two speakers are Sir Andrew Green from Migration Watch and the Rev Vaughan Jones from Praxis, which works with displaced people across London. Attendance is by ticket invitation only and meetings take place under Chatham House rules. Tickets are free and can be obtained from Ekklesia 020 8769 8163 firstname.lastname@example.org