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Little sympathy for asylum seekers in city of immigrants

By Peter Wilkinson, CNN
English Defence League activists march in Birmingham, central England, in September 2009.
English Defence League activists march in Birmingham, central England, in September 2009.
  • Hostility to immigrants, especially Muslims, widespread in Birmingham
  • Ethnic minorities make up almost half of the population in some suburbs
  • Far-right groups hope to pick up support in Birmingham which is hit hard by recession
  • Anti-fascist groups fear surge in racism and Islamaphobia in the English Midlands city

CNN visited Birmingham, a city hit heavily by the collapse of manufacturing even before the recession and one that displays many of the tension points experienced across Europe, to interview asylum seekers and gauge reactions on the street to immigration.

Birmingham, England (CNN) -- Since World War II waves of immigration have radically changed the ethnic makeup of Birmingham with thousands of West Indians and Asians arriving to work in Britain's industrial heartland.

But the decline of manufacturing over the last three decades has hit the country's second-biggest city hard and unemployment is now twice the national average at more than 11.3 percent. And severe cuts to the $200 billion welfare state announced by the coalition government last month will put pressure on public services, possibly fueling yet further accusations that immigrants are "spongeing" off the state.

Many parts of Birmingham are already severely run down and with ethnic minorities making up almost half of the population in some suburbs, suspicion and hostility toward immigrants, especially Muslims, are widespread.

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With the number of both racist attacks and incidents of racially motivated harassment doubling nationally during the last decade, according to the latest Home Office figures, anti-fascist groups now fear a surge in racism and Islamaphobia in Birmingham.

Britain's asylum seekers left in limbo
Gallery: Tough lives of failed asylum seekers

It is in this climate that the far-right hopes to pick up support. Four years ago, anti-fascist group Searchlight reported that the British National Party (BNP) was growing fastest in Birmingham. And in 2006 the BNP contested all 41 seats local elections in the city for the first time.

But despite the BNP saying that its national membership has doubled in the last three years from about 7,000 to more than 14,000, the party has failed to win great support in local or national elections.

The even-more controversial English Defence League (EDL) has joined the fray in the last year, and on the group's website, there are several postings railing against Muslims in the city. Anti-Islamic comments are prevalent across the site.

Which countries are most 'welcoming' to asylum seekers?

"The far-right prospers in areas where there are large ethnic minorites," said Simon Cressy, a spokesman for Searchlight. "They thrive in small towns and inner cities, and both the BNP and the EDL would like to step up their presence in Birmingham, where the EDL has a number of divisions.

"The EDL is different to the BNP: while the BNP tries to court respectability by focusing on wider immigration, the EDL is basically anti-Islamic and wants to smash up mosques. They are more of a physical threat because the leaders have no control over activists and can easily muster demos of 1,000 people on the streets."

Cressy said the chaos in the asylum system was also being exploited by the far-right, who are using "loopholes and abuses by the minority" to whip up fears about Islamic fundamentalists arriving in Britain.

The EDL agreed it had a "massive presence" in Birmingham but its leader Tommy Robinson denied it was trying to incite racism or hatred of immigrants.

We have a hotbed of support in the city which I put down to the fact that they have a massive problem of appeasement to Islam.
--English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson

"We have a hotbed of support in the city which I put down to the fact that they have a massive problem of appeasement to Islam," Robinson told CNN. "People are fed up with what's going on in that city.

"Any politicians in power who are Islamic are working for the Islamic community ... purely for Islam. We have no representatives, no voices -- no people fighting our corner. There is a massive gap between politicians and us -- they have no idea about working class communities."

Robinson added that the EDL did not condone violence but he admitted the group had no control over every activist. "It did begin to spiral out of control in the early days but we've put harnesses on it now. We weren't ready for (the EDL) to get as big as it has as quick as it has.

"We don't condone violence but we do promote defending ourselves. Violence doesn't solve anything but we want to defeat militant Islam. Immigration has made this country a better place, but we have to see people wanting to integrate. If you're against our flag and western democracy, then leave our country. Islamic immigration is destroying our country."

Many of these sentiments are reflected in the ill-feeling expressed about immigrants by locals on the streets of Birmingham. CNN talked first to people in the city center, which has undergone a glitzy transformation over the past decade, before moving out to the more dilapidated suburbs.

Everyone CNN spoke to was unaware that asylum seekers -- who receive a government stipend when they first apply -- received no benefits after their claim had been turned down. Most were of the opinion that after rejection, they did not deserve any more support and should be sent back to their home countries.

Asylum seekers describe life on the streets

One local, 56-year-old Jim Moore, summed up the views of the majority of those prepared to discuss immigration on the street. "I don't care where they've come from -- they're just here to sponge off the state," said Moore, who was one of the few prepared to give his name.

"Britain shouldn't have to look after these people. They're only here because we're soft," he added.

Another Birmingham resident, John Evans, 54, also said the UK admitted too many newcomers. "Britain is a small island and if we make it too comfortable even more (immigrants) will come. Look at Birmingham: you can see how crowded it is. I worry that we take in more asylum seekers than this country can cope with.

"It's no surprise that there's tension in some parts of the UK. We can't take in too many more immigrants."

Even some second-generation immigrants expressed the apparently common belief that after an asylum seeker's claim had been rejected, then he or she should return home. Yousuf, a 19-year-old born in Birmingham to Pakistani parents, said he was unaware that failed asylum seekers received no benefits, but added "they can't let in everyone. If an application to stay is rejected those people should go back."

I think they should give asylum seekers enough money to live on. It's not as though the UK is that poor.
--Local resident Kate Gardner

Asked if he could live on £10 a week from the Red Cross, as many failed asylum seekers do, Yousuf replied: "No way, man!" But he added, "there's only so many people the UK can let in."

Only a handful of people interviewed in our random sample were sympathetic to the plight of asylum seekers. When told that failed asylum seekers had to live on charity aid vouchers, 41-year-old Kate Gardner said: "Nobody should have to live without benefits. It's not human. I do have sympathy for asylum seekers: they wouldn't come all the way here if they could avoid it.

"I think they should give asylum seekers enough money to live on. It's not as though the UK is that poor."

Even more sympathy came from Mohammed Iqbal, aged 35, who said: "The UK should welcome people fleeing from violence and hunger. Britain took the riches from its empire and now it's payback time. Britain left many countries in a mess and now it must look after these people.

"If people are escaping from violence, they should be able to stay here but they must work."

These diverse views came as no surprise to Roger Godsiff, MP for Birmingham Sparkbrook and Small Heath. He said some of his constituents, half of whom are of Asian origin, were sympathetic to asylum seekers, "others take a strong argument over new arrivals, and won't differentiate whether they're asylum seekers and whether they're here legally or not."

"Another section of the community says: There are more and more people coming into this area from all over the world. Whereas Birmingham has always been a city of immigrants, starting off by being immigrants from all over the UK; now it's a city of immigrants from all over the world. It just seems to be more and more people coming in here."

Godsiff added that the message he gets from his constituents is: "Quite frankly I think there's enough."

"They don't say it very loudly. They say it on the doorstep but they're guarded about saying it in public for fear of being accused of being a racist. They are angry, and they're the ones who when asked which issues are most important to you, always put immigrants in the top five."

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