Blunkett caught up in race row
LONDON (Reuters) - By Andrew Cawthorne - Home Secretary David Blunkett has defended plans to segregate immigrants' children so they do not "swamp" schools.
Straight-talking Blunkett refused to back down after a barrage of criticism from race relations groups, politicians and public. "I am afraid I don't apologise ... Yes, I did mean to say it," he said.
Blunkett's controversial comment came on Wednesday as he explained why a proposed new immigration law would have children of new refugees attend special schools at pilot accommodation centres rather than "swamping local schools".
"Using the word 'swamping' was a mistake," car mechanic Shak Chaudry said as he took his two children to a London school. "We are absolutely against separation because it creates racism," he added in a view echoed by other parents interviewed by Reuters.
Immigration is a touchy issue anyway in Britain, but sensibilities have been heightened since far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen won a stunning success in the first round of presidential elections in neighbouring France this week to qualify for a runoff with President Jacques Chirac.
His strong showing has raised fears of a boost in support for the similarly extremist and anti-immigrant British National Party at next week's local government elections.
For many Britons, Blunkett's vocabulary also echoed a notorious comment by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1978, after a riot in the central city of Wolverhampton, that people were "really afraid that this country might be swamped by people of a different culture."
Prime Minister Tony Blair's ruling Labour Party this week presented its new Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill that includes a proposal to create accommodation centres for refugee families instead of placing them in communities.
Under the proposal, children of asylum seekers would receive on-site education rather than attend mainstream schools or nurseries. That idea is opposed by many, but it was Blunkett's use of the word "swamping" that caused particular outrage.
"It creates a false notion. I don't think the use of emotive language helps us to develop a society where we all have a sense of belonging," said Gurbux Singh, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality.
But Blunkett shot back, saying comparisons with former "Iron Lady" Thatcher's use of the same word were "ridiculous" due to an "entirely different context" in 1978. He argued that squabbling over language was deflecting attention from the real issue of how to integrate asylum seekers.
At one London primary school even the children were debating Blunkett's comment. "They (refugees) have just come to this country to get help. If they are separated in schools that's racist," said eight-year-old Tiannah James.