David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, admits today that Britain is "particularly attractive to asylum-seekers".
In an article for a French newspaper, published this morning ahead of a critical meeting with his Paris counterpart, Mr Blunkett confirms the widely canvassed view that the UK has become a haven for people seeking asylum from around the world.
At the start of a difficult week for the Home Secretary, in which he must rescue his beleaguered asylum policy, the remarks are certain to prompt yet more criticism that Britain is a "soft touch" for asylum-seekers.
That is a charge that Mr Blunkett denies. But in an article for Journal de Dimanche today, he makes it clear that Britain is determined to uphold its obligations to genuine refugees. He writes: "I cannot dispute that the UK is particularly attractive to asylum- seekers. Many speak English as their second language. Many seek to join friends, relatives and national communities already established in Britain."
Hundreds of asylum-seekers are trying to enter Britain via the Channel Tunnel, many from the controversial Sangatte immigration camp. On Wednesday, Mr Blunkett will meet David Vaillant, the French interior minister. He will appeal to the French not to build a second camp to ease pressure on Sangatte. He will urge fresh co-operation and an end to hostile exchanges in which Britain has been accused of giving too warm a welcome to immigrants.
"It is only by working together – and not having a go at each other – that we will solve the problem at Sangatte and across the EU," Mr Blunkett's article says.
Mr Vaillant is expected to renew his determination this week to "harmonise legislation to make Britain less attractive" as a destination for asylum- seekers. Although he has conceded that now may not be the right time to establish a second camp, it remains firmly on the agenda.
The Home Secretary also faces political difficulties in Britain. Mr Blunkett is appealing against a High Court ruling that the flagship Oakington immigration centre in Cambridgeshire breaches human rights, but if it is not overturned, it could result in the release of hundreds of asylum-seekers. Oakington will stay open until the appeal, brought by four Kurds kept at the centre, is heard at the start of October.
The Tories have repeatedly used the issue to attack the Government. They insist that ministers have failed to stem flows of illegal immigrants while trying to provide a fair system for people who are genuinely fleeing persecution or are economic migrants with skills desperately needed in Britain.
In an attempt to appear tough, Mr Blunkett's newspaper article stresses the steps taken since 1999 to ensure that the asylum system is not abused, such as tightening up the welfare available, increased investment to process claims more quickly, tougher measures against people smugglers and increased security at border controls.
In a separate incident, the Australian Navy yesterday boarded an Indonesian boat carrying about 200 suspected illegal immigrants. They were taken off the ship and put aboard the HMAS Manoora, now heading for Papua New Guinea, with 433 refugees recently turned away by the Australian prime minister John Howard after they were rescued from a sinking Indonesian ferry by the crew of the Norwegian cargo ship MV Tampa.Reuse content