Curbs on asylum-seekers 'already too tight'

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Home Affairs Correspondent

Only 1,100 people were given asylum in this country during the past year - less than 5 per cent of 25,000 who had applied.

Refugee and human rights groups say that those figures alone are more than enough evidence to prove that asylum procedures are already so tight that there is a real risk that genuine refugees could be sent back to persecution, torture or even death.

The latest proposals, they claim, will effectively wipe out asylum in this country.

While applications for asylum were up by 12,200 for the year ending in June, to 37,900, compared to Germany, for example, the UK does not have a huge immigration and asylum problem. Of more than 300,000 people seeking asylum in Europe in 1984, about one- tenth applied in the UK, compared with nearly 25 per cent in Germany and about 15 per cent in the Netherlands.

The Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 - the last piece of anti- immigration legislation, which the Conservative Party believes paid a key part in its success at the 1992 general election - has dramatically cut the number of refugees being allowed to stay in the UK.

In 1992 it was 20,000. It dropped to fewer than 5,000 in 1994 and the latest figures available for the year ending in June this year totalled 5,800. This included 4,700, nearly 20 per cent, who were not recognised as refugees but granted a kind of halfway house - exceptional leave to stay. This enables them to stay but without the benefits allowed refugees such as their families being allowed to join them. That leaves a total of 19,300 who had their applications turned down - a sharp increase on the 11,800 in the previous 12 months.

Nevertheless, the Government is set to clamp down further in new legislation by alleging that bogus refugees and illegal immigrants are claiming millions of pounds in benefit and clogging up the system for those genuinely fleeing persecution. The difficulty is that the Home Office has never actually investigated the scale of the problem, claiming it is too complex and costly to find out exactly how many people are living here illegally and how of those are claiming benefit.

There are anecdotes of some illegal immigrants signing on in different names and claiming benefits and housing and free services. But equally there is anecdotal evidence that employers in unsocial-hours, low-pay industries such as cleaning and catering are becoming dependent on illegal workers - the only ones who are prepared to take on long hours and poor pay with no employment rights. Estimates put the figure at anything between 20,000 and up to 1 million from the anti-immigration right. The only thing known for sure is that between 4,000 and 6,000 illegal immigrants are deported every year - last year the figure was 5,032.

As well as the suggestion that the Government is playing a populist "race card", there is increasing pressure for more internal checks on immigrants and asylum seekers as our European partners demand that we drop our external passport controls for travellers within the EU. Despite a split in the Cabinet over plans to penalise employers of illegal immigrants, the whole anti-immigration package has more ministerial support than that for a national identity scheme.(Graphic omitted)

Leading article, page 22

Andrew Marr, page 23