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|Facing Up to the Asylum Issue|
BBC correspondent and co-presenter of BBC Asylum Day
Wednesday, 23 July, 2003
Switch on the television news bulletins or pick up the papers and you get snapshots of the explosive issue of asylum in Britain.
One day it will be something about the cunning and devious methods used by asylum seekers to get across the English Channel from Sangatte; another day it will be about an argument in Parliament on a complex and technical aspect of asylum law reform.
According to Home Office statistics, in 1982, 4,223 people came to this island seeking asylum from their own homeland. Last year that figure was just under 111,000 and the numbers have kept rising every year over the last twenty years.
But snapshots and statistics do not reflect the incredibly dramatic human story behind it all.
Within those numbers are members of my own extended family.
As recently as the late 1980s and early 1990s, cousins, aunts and uncles fled the war in northern Somalia where I am originally from.
They fled their country because they belonged to a minority clan that the military government of the day wanted to persecute.
I started my journalism career by travelling to northern Somalia to see this for myself.
When I came back to the UK I remember helping relatives navigate their way around the whole asylum process, the different laws and technicalities, often going with them to their interviews with Home Office or Social Security officials.
A 'soft touch'?
Yet many communities across Britain simply don't want asylum seekers living among them while the tax-payer puts a roof over their heads and takes care of their other needs.
Arguments are heated, riots have been sparked, and the whole issue is emotionally raw.
It has touched deep social, economic and cultural chords in Britain, sparking fierce political debates about the nature of our asylum laws and whether we are a soft touch compared to other European countries.
But how much do we really know about this very complex issue?
BBC One's Asylum Day on Wednesday, 23 July, aims to step back, examine, argue and debate the issues surrounding immigration and the asylum system.
Behind the headlines
From the most basic question of what an asylum seeker is, to a detailed look at several genuine cases of people who have come here to seek asylum and who have agreed to co-operate with us in making the programmes, all the different aspects and arguments will be explored.
There will be representatives of groups working with asylum seekers as well as campaigners who want the asylum laws tightened up.
And we shouldn't kid ourselves that this is somehow a boring political debate.
Behind the headlines, there are people fleeing their homes to new and strange worlds but there are also societies who no longer feel they can cope with more strangers in their midst.
And yet, no one can escape the reality that, for better or worse, the very nature of British society over the past two or three hundred years has been changed by waves of people coming to these shores seeking asylum, and making new lives here.