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Birmingham's makeover fails to reach migrant neighborhoods

By Peter Wilkinson, CNN
  • Birmingham city center has undergone makeover with shiny new indoor shopping malls
  • Inner-city neighborhoods remain largely untouched though with high unemployment
  • In these poor, largely ethnic and white neighborhoods have come new immigrants: asylum seekers
  • CNN visited the city to interview asylum seekers about their lives

Birmingham, England (CNN) -- Since the second half of the last century Birmingham has always had a rich ethnic mix: in the 1950s Caribbean immigrants came over to drive buses and trains as well as work in the factories, followed by Asians, largely from India and Pakistan, and in the 1970s, Ugandan refugees.

But while the city center underwent a makeover for the millennium -- shiny new indoor shopping malls, shabby old warehouses changed into restaurants and coffee shops where office workers share a drink and a laugh, the city's miles of canals cleaned up, pubs and clubs buzzing at night -- the inner-city neighborhoods remain largely untouched with high unemployment, crumbling housing, run-down shop fronts and used car lots.

Into these poor, largely ethnic and white neighborhoods have come the new immigrants -- the asylum seekers, people who have risked their lives to come to Britain believing its tolerance towards outsiders gave opportunities for new lives and livelihoods to be made in peace.

The numbers of asylum claims has fallen rapidly since the 1990s, but critics remain vociferous in hailing Britain as the asylum capital of the world due to what they say is its generous state benefits and lax border controls. A United Nations convention demands that countries accept people fleeing from violence or persecution, but the challenge for authorities is determining who is genuine and what to do with those whose claims they reject.

Which countries are most 'welcoming' to asylum seekers?

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

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair's government introduced stricter laws on the treatment of asylum seekers in 2003, the most controversial of which was removing benefits from those whose claims were rejected. The government expects these people to leave the country, but many -- for various reasons -- will not or cannot return home, so they become destitute while they stay in Britain.

The British Red Cross says 200,000 failed asylum seekers are in this boat. The charity, which hands out £10 vouchers each week, has criticized successive policies towards asylum seekers. It says tough border controls are one thing, but forcing failed asylum seekers into destitution is inhumane.

UK's 'broken' asylum system remains battleground

CNN sent me to Birmingham to meet some of these vulnerable people who live without money, shelter or support. I came away shocked to see young women sleeping in stairwells of blocks of flats or in public parks, especially in freezing conditions. A Zimbabwean asylum seeker I met in Birmingham said she was being exploited by men with whom she was forced to live.

Failed asylum seekers tell their stories

One young Somalian man said he had to sleep in a park but feared for his safety. He is probably right to: while racist attacks are relatively rare in Britain, far-right groups are gaining in support. Their message resonates strongly among white people who believe immigrants are "spongeing" off the state. And when CNN talked to locals around the city we encountered much of this hostility towards incomers.
Little sympathy for asylum seekers in city of immigrants

And as austerity measures bite across the rest of Europe, anti-immigrant sentiments are growing, with right-wing parties in the ascendant. And with Europe facing greater pressures from both inside and outside its borders to take more immigrants, the tensions show no sign of easing.

Tide turning against Europe's immigrants

Time to go back and speak up in your country. The asylum seekers are becoming a majority that just don't want to have to deal with the trouble in their own countries.
--CNN user Dagnay

The polarized opinions were clear on CNN message boards when our stories on migration were published: most were broadly anti-immigration. Bantex, for example, posted this comment: "Why would people come to a country where they are not wanted by the majority and where they cannot contribute in a positive way to the economy? Never mind that they do not fit into the cultural set up of that country."

And Dagnay added: "Time to go back and speak up in your country. The asylum seekers are becoming a majority that just don't want to have to deal with the trouble in their own countries."

Only a few posts were more open-minded, with Pocu321 writing sympathetically about the failed asylum seekers referred to in our story: "I'm usually one of the right-wing elite that most of you huggers like to insult. But in this case, I wish I knew these two precious women. I don't have much. But I would feed them. And if I knew where they were and how to contact them, I would try to match them with a church that will feed them. CNN, you have my email."

With climate change and conflicts set to cause more people to flee from rising water levels and wars fought over water supplies, tensions over immigration will only grow.

Climate change set to cause migrant surge

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