Is Britain really such a soft touch for asylum-seekers?

A year ago, laws were passed to speed up the immigration process and deter bogus applications. Penny Lewis asks whether the new legislation is succeeding
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The Independent Online

THE GROUNDING of a Cambodian-registered vessel in the south of France recently highlighted the problem Western Europe faces as a magnet for immigrants. The ship, called the East Sea, was used to smuggle a thousand souls hoping to make a new home in the West.

The grounding of a Cambodian-registered vessel in the south of France recently highlighted the problem Western Europe faces as a magnet for immigrants. The ship, called the East Sea, was used to smuggle a thousand souls hoping to make a new home in the West.

The United Kingdom is accused of being a soft touch for asylum seekers. Increasing numbers are heading for our shores. In 2000 a record 76,040 asylum applications were brought. According to the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND), over 80 per cent were declined.

But Ann Widdecombe, shadow Home Secretary, points out that when the Conservatives left power, only 32,000 asylum claims were made. In contrast, she believes that the present Government "has propelled this country to the top of the league table for the number of applications for asylum in Europe". There is a backlog of 66,000; 15,855 files have been lost; and it is feared that cases have proceeded without full facts. In addition, she says that 21,000 individuals were allowed to stay because of an amnesty.

The crucial test for asylum entry into the UK is whether there is a reasonable likelihood of persecution if the person returns home.

Frances Webber, an immigration law specialist, believes that EU immigration laws are xenophobic. The "vast majority" of her clients, she believes, "tell genuine stories and are at grave risk if they return to their country of origin". In her opinion, "the West must take responsibility for the creation of refugees".

Last April, the Asylum and Immigration Act 1999 came into force. In the Commons in May 2000, Tony Blair said: "The new system will be fairer and faster and will deter the bogus asylum-seeker". This "flagship" legislation was intended to reduce spurious applications and speed up decision-making procedures.

The Home Office refers to a "two plus four" commitment aimed at making initial decisions in two months and appeals in a further four months. Section 65 of the 1999 Act specifically provides a right of appeal against decisions made under immigration laws in breach of human rights.

A new National Asylum Support Service (NASS) was established to handle the destitute. They are dispersed in areas in which "there is a ready supply of accommodation" among 13 "clusters". The NASS also distributes vouchers for most essentials.

It was hoped that the regime would relieve pressure on authorities close to major ports, which previously bore the financial brunt of mass immigration. Kent County Council, for example, spent £250,000 on asylum in the year 1996-97, but its estimated budget for last year was £50m.

The Audit Commission reported recently that the system is unworkable because of inadequate support services outside London. Many go to areas where they struggle with linguistic and cultural differences. The Act says that in providing shelter, asylum seekers' preferred choice of location is irrelevant. Evidence was found of sub-standard accommodation, voucher shortages and virulent local hostility.

Another perceived weakness of the system is that few unsuccessful applicants are removed. Despite the IND's claim that a small percentage are granted asylum, the fate of those rejected is vague. The Home Affairs Select Committee found that during the first 10 months of 2000, only 7,610 were expelled out of 58,885 disappointed claimants. Even if the time-scale for processing applications has reduced, how many disappear into society?

The Conservatives would like to see more applicants deported to safe places. They propose compiling a list of these. Section 11 of the 1999 Act describes all European member states as safe. Human rights campaigners would argue, though, that asylum-seekers should seek sanctuary where they wish.

Other reforms are proposed by Jack Straw. He recommends a scheme for all European states under which would-be migrants must apply for refugee status outside the EU's borders in other countries that will be assessed as safe. The current Eurostar loophole is also being closed.

A two-tier system for claimants has also been mooted. This pragmatic approach would match needs for skilled workers with qualified entrants, but would prejudice claims by the less able.

Ann Widdecombe proposes that asylum-seekers be housed in detention centres and that a National Removals Agency assists in deporting disappointed claimants. At present, applicants are normally sent to secure centres if recommended for deportation or to enable them to answer further questions. Article 31 of the 1951 Convention permits contracting states to restrict movement of refugees "until their status in the country is regularised". Only time will tell if these measures deter the desperate.

 

Penny Lewis is a solicitor at Berrymans Lace Mawer