Howard clamp on asylum seekers

Boxing Pilot scheme for seven countries already operating
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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent.

The Home Secretary yesterday confirmed his determination to introduce controversial legislation closing the door on refugees from so-called "safe white" countries around the world, while refugee groups claimed he had already begun doing so.

Since May this year, asylum seekers from seven named countries have been placed on a "fast track" system, which has enabled decisions to be made in their cases within five days - a process that can take many weeks, if not months. It was introduced with just four days' notice to those refugee agencies and layers representing asylum seekers.

Although the Home Office maintained last night that the "short procedure pilot" scheme was designed purely to speed up administration, Amnesty International, and other refugee welfare groups, maintain it has been a dry run for the new Asylum and Immigration Bill, to be included in the Queen's Speech next month.

They say the trial scheme - affecting Ghana, Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Romania and Poland - is likely to be put on a formal basis through Mr Howard's new legislation, which will then curtail their appeal rights. The so-called "white" list of countries would be expected to also include Zaire, Angola and others, where nearly all asylum-seekers are turned down.

Coming on top of plans to curtail asylum seekers' rights to benefit, to fine employers of illegal immigrants - and, most vitally, to heavily restrict asylum seekers' rights of appeal - refugee and human rights groups last night claimed the notion of asylum would be all but dead in this country.

Richard Dunstan, of Amnesty International, said the setting up of the pilot scheme -"essentially a nascent 'white list" - "signalled the Government's intention of demolishing the existing asylum process".

"Once completed, this process will amount to a total abdication of the Government's obligations under international law," he said.

Labour last night pledged to fight the Bill through Parliament. Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "Michael Howard is playing a cynical race card. He has not made out the case for any new legislation and I cannot see how Britain can maintain its UN obligations, if it proceeds."

But last night there was widespread support from the Tory backbenches, with one former minister frankly admitting the party was playing the race card. Conservative Central Office was said to believe that the last anti-immigration Act played a successful role in the 1992 General Election. The Bill, which will form a major plank of the Government's forthcoming legislative programme, is seen as a way of putting some "clear blue water" between themselves and Labour.

Yesterday Mr Howard insisted the Bill was aimed at weeding out false claimants, and would not penalise genuine refugees fleeing persecution.

"You will find most European countries employ a similar form of control," he told BBC Radio 4's World at One programme. "We have a real problem in this country. We are seen as a very attractive destination because of the ease with which people can gain access to jobs and benefits.

"While the number of asylum-seekers for the rest of Europe is falling, the number in this country is increasing. Only a tiny proportion of them are genuine refugees. I want to make sure that genuine refugees get the sanctuary this country has always been proud to provide but I believe that we must take firm action against bogus asylum-seekers."

While it is true that more people are applying for asylum in this country, far fewer are being allowed entry. Of the 25,000 cases decided in the year to June this year, only 1,100 people were granted asylum - less than five per cent. A further 4,700 were allowed in, but without full refugee status. The Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 has already dramatically cut the number of refugees being allowed to stay in the UK. In 1992 it was 20,000. It dropped to less that 5,000 in 1994.

Claude Moraes, director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said : "We know for certain that the use of an inflexible, rigid list of this sort will inevitably lead to some asylum seekers being sent back to torture, persecution and possibly death."