Howard cuts refugees' right of appeal

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A two-pronged attack over the backlog of refugee applications - now standing at 56,000 - was announced yesterday by the Home Office.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, will spend £37m on a huge increase in case workers and appeal adjudicators to speed up the process. He will also make further use of a provision introduced two years ago to limit some appeal rights.

About 6,000 who enter on a visa and then apply for asylum can qualify for two appeals - against the refusal of asylum and a deportation order if they overstay. In future, the issues will be considered at one appeal.

Mr Howard believes the twin-track approach, which should result in bogus asylum-seekers being removed more quickly, will save more than £100m in benefits. Genuine refugees' cases should also be settled more quickly.

But the moves were seen by some yesterday as a decision to crack down on asylum-seekers in the wake of the row over illegal immigration and border controls triggered by the resignation of the former immigration minister, Charles Wardle.

Claude Moreas, director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, was concerned that the moves would lead to greater injustice, expulsion of more genuine refugees, and greater use of detention. "There should be no restrictions on appeal rights until fundamental safeguards, like proper legal representation, are in place."

He believed yesterday's announcement could precede more radical changes being considered by Mr Howard in the light of a specially commissioned management consultant report. That report, by KPMG Peat Marwick, recommends removing oral hearings in some cases and publishing a "white list" of countries believed not to put asylum-seekers at risk.

But others said the moves were the "inevitable consequence" of a bottleneck crisis, caused by the Government's lack of proper provision when it introduced its fast-track asylum procedures in the Asylum Act 1993. "The Government completely underestimated the number of adjudicators it would need to deal with appeals and now they are having to throw money at the problem," Richard Dunstan, Amnesty International's refugee officer, said.

Asylum applications have increased dramatically over the past few years, but are still lower than other European countries such as Germany, with 322,000, Sweden (37,000) and the Netherlands (35,000). In Britain there were 4,389 application in 1985, rising to 32,830 last year - mainly from people fleeing Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Ghana.

The backlog, which last year stood at about 48,000, has grown to crisis levels. Average cases are taking about seven months, with appeals taking many months more - although some have waited years for a ruling. At any one time about 600 asylum-seekers will be in jails or detention centres. As numbers of applications have grown so has the percentage of rejections - currently standing at about 80 per cent. Announcing the moves yesterday, Mr Howard said: "It is not in the interests of genuine asylum-seekers for the system to be overloaded with applications from people whose real motives have nothing to do with a well-founded fear of persecution."

He said 150 staff would be added to the 500 asylum caseworkers on top of the appointment of more appeal adjudicators. He expected them to be able to decide an extra 7,000 cases a year, about 31,000 a year, gradually clearing the backlog and reducing the time it takes to process cases.