Page last updated at 03:40 GMT, Tuesday, 20 May 2008 04:40 UK

Should the term 'asylum' be banned?

By Mark Easton
Home editor, BBC News

A cell at Colnbrook immigration detention centre, near London
Some asylum seekers are held in detention centres

What has happened to the word "asylum" that its very use threatens those in need of it?

It has had a troubled history.

Once before Parliament was urged to replace it, and actually did so in 1930 prompting lunatic 'asylums' to be renamed as 'hospitals'.

Now, campaigners with the Independent Asylum Commission say the term should be erased in its contemporary context.

"Unless we take action to restore public support and confidence," warns Commission chair and former High Court judge Sir John Waite, "the outlook for the UK's tradition of providing sanctuary to those fleeing persecution is bleak."

The Commission's report includes a poll which suggests the word is seen as overwhelmingly negative - associated with criminality, terrorism, benefit fraud and, yes even today, mental illness.

The concept of the "asylum seeker" is a relatively new one, first seen in Britain in 1981 when Immigration Rules used it to replace the phrase "aliens seeking political asylum".

Intercontinental refugees

But it wasn't until the mid-90s that the asylum seeker, as opposed to the refugee, was recognised in law.

The distinction was in response to a new phenomenon: the intercontinental refugee claimant.

The jet age meant Western countries were seeing many more people turning up at their borders asking for political asylum rather than arriving through managed resettlement programmes.

And this at a time when global economic migration was also increasing by similar routes.

Numbers rose rapidly and asylum became a political and public issue.

The press was full of often inaccurate stories about asylum seekers: Callous asylum seekers are barbecuing the Queen's swans, the Sun revealed - without any evidence.

The Daily Star ludicrously claimed "Asylum Seekers Eat Our Donkeys".

'Ill-informed' coverage

Under the headline "Asylum Chaos", the Daily Express wrongly claimed that "asylum-seeking benefit cheats" were "costing the British taxpayer 100m a year" and commissioned a readers' poll asking: "Should all asylum seekers be tagged immediately?"

The situation became so serious that the Association of Chief Police Officers published a report warning that "ill-informed adverse media coverage was heightening tensions" and noting that "racist expressions towards asylum seekers appear to have become 'acceptable' in a way that would never be tolerated towards any other minority group".

You can blame the press or those individuals who were found to have tried to cheat the system, but there seems no way back now for the term "asylum seeker".

The Commission's first annual report suggests public debate switch to the word "sanctuary" which is seen positively and relates to people's own lives.

It seems doubtful, however, that in a country deeply troubled by the consequences of globalisation, changing the language will transform the debate.

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