A sharp fall in asylum-seekers arriving in Britain has put the Government on course to fulfil Tony Blair's promise to halve the number of applications by September.
But the drop was accompanied by an increase in people entering on work permits, prompting accusations that the headline total was being massaged downwards.
The figures released yesterday revealed that 10,585 people applied for asylum between April and June, 34 per cent fewer than in the previous three months, and just over half the figure for the same period in 2002.
Mr Blair's target is to reduce monthly numbers to 4,385, half the record high of 8,770 recorded in October last year. The total for each of the three months was within the Prime Minister's goal, with the 3,280 applications received in May the lowest total for five years.
The highest number of applications over the quarter came from Somalia (900), followed by Zimbabwe (815, down by 24 per cent) and China (705). The number of Iraqis seeking refugee status fell by 70 per cent to 635.
David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, said the "notion that nothing could be done" to stem the tide of illegal immigration had been disproved by the statistics. "These figures show that the tough measures the Government has put in place to prevent illegal immigration and tackle abuse of the asylum system are working."
Oliver Letwin, the shadow Home Secretary, welcomed the reduction, but pointed to Home Office figures, also published yesterday, that showed the number of work permits issued in 2002 rose by 10 per cent to more than 120,000. He claimed that the Immigration Service had instructed officials not to pursue illegal immigrants energetically. "Even with all of these manipulations in place the figures do little more than follow an international trend and we are still top of both the world and the EU asylum league. The fundamental problems of the current system fairly clearly remain."
The Home Office figures also showed that immigration officers rejected 86 per cent of asylum applications - the highest proportion since late 2000.
At the same time, more asylum-seekers won appeals against the decision to refuse them refugee status. The rate of successful appeals increased from 17 per cent in the first quarter to 21 per cent in the second. During the three months, 3,145 failed asylum-seekers were removed from the UK, a fifth more than in the previous period.
Measures introduced by the Government include moving border controls from the Channel ports to France, the introduction of new technology at entry points and widening the list of countries whose nationals are automatically returned. Ministers have also been helped by the changing political climate in Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka.
Maeve Sherlock, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: "Simply preventing people from entering the UK cannot be referred to as a success when some of those people may be in desperate need of our help."
Separate Home Office figures revealed the number of people granted British passports increased by a third to 120,145 - the highest figure on record and nearly three times the 1992 figure. Nearly half were granted because they had lived in Britain for five years. The rest qualified through marriage or because they were children of British citizens.Reuse content