Fewer asylum claims made but deportation target may be missed

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The Government looks set to miss a much-trumpeted target for removing failed asylum-seekers, despite a sharp fall in the numbers claiming refuge in Britain.

Asylum applications have dropped by 21 per cent over the past year to just over 2,000 a month and have plummeted by three-quarters since their peak in 2002.

But the fall was tarnished by the admission that only about 1,000 failed asylum-seekers were being deported a month, slightly below the figure a year ago.

As part of its clampdown, the Government introduced Section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants etc) Act 2004, amending the earlier 2002 legislation, so that families with children can be deprived of housing and basic support if their initial asylum claim is refused. But because local authorities have an overriding duty of care towards children, if a family is left destitute, the children would have to be taken into care.

A Christian Iranian couple now face the "inhumane" choice of returning to religious persecution in their homeland or having their children taken away if they remain here.

Zohreh Khanali, 27, and her husband Vahid, 38, could be separated from six-month-old Mobina and Parisa, six, as early as the end of this week, lawyers said yesterday after an immigration tribunal ruling in favour of the Home Office.

The Khanali family, who are living in Bury, have already lost their battle for political asylum but since arriving in this country two years ago have won support from local councillors, their church and the governors of a primary school where Parisa is being educated.

The new law being piloted in Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and north London, is aimed at encouraging families to volunteer to return home after being rejected for asylum in this country. Those who agree to leave the country are allowed to keep their benefits.

John Nicholson, representing the family, said: "The new law clearly violates international human rights protections to which the UK is party.

"This 'pilot' is inhumane in its creation and its implementation. People have fled persecution and need our support."

Last September Tony Blair promised that by the end of this year the numbers returned to their home countries would exceed the total of unfounded applications. But Home Office figures, covering April to June, show the Government faces a daunting challenge to meet this target. There were 6,220 asylum applications in the second quarter of 2005, down 11 per cent from the previous three months and 21 per cent fewer than the same period last year. In the same period, 3,095 failed asylum-seekers were deported, an increase on the previous quarter, but down 2 per cent on 2004.

Tony McNulty, the Immigration minister insisted: "We remain committed to removing more failed asylum-seekers on a monthly basis by the end of 2005."

The figures showed that 55,000 people applied to the UK between April and June 2005 under the Worker Registration Scheme governing workers from the new east European members of the EU. The number of work permit holders and their dependants admitted to the UK last year rose by 4 per cent to a record of 124,310.

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants said the fall was "no cause for celebration" as Britain should not be proud fewer people were seeking safe haven.

Migrationwatch UK, the right-wing think-tank, welcomed the drop in asylum claims, but urged ministers to "get a grip" on removals.

Humfrey Malins, the Tory immigration spokesman, said the failure to deport bogus refugees "makes a mockery" of the Government's efforts to tackle the problem.

Margaret Lally, the deputy chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: "The Government needs to stop measuring the success of its asylum policy simply on the basis of the number of people claiming asylum and start to address more fundamental problems."

The Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman, Mark Oaten, said: "Targets shouldn't guide asylum policy. We should always be welcoming those fleeing persecution but be firm with removing those who don't have a genuine case."