NEXT to one of the Sheraton hotels at Heathrow airport is Britain's equivalent of a Vietnamese detention camp in Hong Kong. Behind the small red-bricked compound is a distinctly dreary government building. Only the rolls of wire topping the walls give away that this is the Harmondsworth Detention Centre - home to those who arrive in Britain claiming political asylum. Those who fall at the first hurdle wait here to be deported. Others are allowed in and freely wait to be processed. Last year only 825 of the nearly 21,000 applications for asylum in Britain, including a good number of mainland Chinese, were approved. The waiting list is slow moving in addition to being long. Some vanish underground while others, such as the two mainland Chinese murdered in east London a few months ago, cross the wrong people. The number of asylum seekers is rising again, but is nowhere near the peak it reached in 1990-91. Immigration is a huge issue in France where former interior minister Charles Pasqua pledged two years ago to work 'towards zero immigration'. In Germany it is an issue too, although the number of asylum seekers and potential immigrants there, at 6.9 million last year, dwarfs Britain's. However, this week the British Government announced it would soon publish a 'white list' of countries deemed safe, essentially countries from which asylum seekers would not be accepted. It contains Poland where hardly anyone could claim to be persecuted nowadays but also includes violent and politically repressive Nigeria and Sri Lanka. As a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on refugees, Britain is obliged to treat every application for political asylum - wherever it comes from - on its individual merit. But it could soon be in breach of that convention if it lumps people together on the basis of their nationality. The list will be the centrepiece of the Asylum and Immigration Bill to be unveiled in the Queen's speech next month along with a series of measures on law and order. It will be one of the mainstays of the Government's policy over the next two years and therefore an electoral issue. The man behind it is the increasingly right wing Home Secretary Michael Howard, publicly charming but in the eyes of many, increasingly menacing. He is, in Chris Patten's terms, 'strong and determined'. His presence on the scene and the atmosphere he has engendered explains why Chris Patten came away empty-handed on all the Hong Kong nationality issues in talks with him this week and why it is unlikely Mr Howard will alter his position. Labour accused the British Government of 'playing the race card' this week and it was correct. Britain is not a magnet for the refugees of the world - they go to Germany not the UK if they want to settle in Europe. Clearly, the Asylum and Immigration Bill is designed to be politically advantageous to the Conservative Party's electoral prospects. With Labour now increasing its lead over the Tories to 30 percentage points, the ruling party is getting desperate, and willing to attempt otherwise irrational acts to try to mine one aspect of the British character which has lain dormant in recent years - xenophobia. The Governor, Chris Patten, is likely to have shared his own fears on this concern when he met with John Major this week. RACISM amounts to ugly and dangerous politics and John Major, a man respected on all sides for his fairness and feeling for justice, should not accept it in his party's hand of cards. There is resistance in the Cabinet to some allied measures. Mr Howard has run up against Cabinet opposition from the likes of Employment Secretary Gillian Shepherd and President of the Board of Trade Ian Lang over workplace checks on refugee status. It is a scheme so daft it was bound to be an enormous disincentive for anyone to employ someone of Asian or African origin. Britain's race relations are not perfect but they are not in crisis and are a lot better than in many countries. To play the race card, or the politics of red meat as it is sometimes described, is reprehensible.