Asylum-seeker numbers drop by 41%

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Indy Politics

The Government has "turned the corner" on asylum, Downing Street said yesterday, after it was revealed that the number of people claiming refuge in Britain tumbled last year by almost 35,000. But this country is still the most popular West European destination for refugees, and the annual bill for managing the asylum system is about to exceed £2bn.

Ministers hope the 41 per cent fall will ease pressure over the politically charged issue of immigration before the expected arrival of thousands of workers from Eastern Europe after the EU expansion on 1 May.

The Home Office said 49,370 people applied for asylum in Britain in 2003, compared to 84,130 in 2002. With dependants, that was 61,050 for the year, compared to 103,080 in 2002. In the final three months of 2003, there were 10,830 new asylum-seekers, down 9 per cent on the previous three months and down 52 per cent on the similar period in 2002. David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, announced new measures yesterday, including the first returns of failed asylum-seekers to Iraq, to drive the figure further down.

The backlog of applicants waiting for claims to be processed has shrunk to 24,500, a drop of more than 100,000 from a record high in 2000. The number of failed asylum-seekers deported in 2003 increased by 23 per cent to 12,490. Tony Blair's official spokesman said: "We have turned the corner, but we are not complacent. We do not believe this is ... anything other than a work in progress."

Mr Blunkett risked a row by saying that illegal workers from the new European Union countries already in Britain would face "no retribution" if they sign a new employment register to be set up after the EU expansion.

The European Commission has warned Britain that its clampdown on welfare benefits for East European immigrants could be illegal.