The Home Office has admitted that it will miss a target set by Tony Blair for the deportation of failed asylum-seekers.
The Prime Minister promised last year that the number of rejected asylum-seekers would exceed the total of unfounded new claims by the end of 2005. But as figures yesterday showed a new increase in asylum applications, the Government asked for more time to hit the target.
Just over 7,700 asylum-seekers and their dependants claimed refuge in Britain in the third quarter of this year, a rise of 7 per cent on the previous three months. The Home Office said seasonal factors accounted for the increase and stressed that applications had almost halved in the past two years.
Over the same period, 3,935 failed asylum-seekers and their dependants were removed from the country, a 12 per cent increase on the previous quarter.
Admitting that Mr Blair's December 2005 target would not be achieved, Tony McNulty, a Home Office minister, said the Government remained committed to closing the gap between the arrival and removal figures. He said: "We recognise this is a tough target and more still needs to be done, but we will continue to work towards this goal and expect to meet it in February 2006."
David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "Despite the Government's repeated promises that they would sort out the asylum shambles, these figures show they are not delivering. After eight years in office, the number of people living here illegally is still growing. This is not the 'firm and fair control over immigration' that Mr Blair promised back in 1997. "
The February 2006 target still looks ambitious, but a new system of tracking the departure of asylum-seekers from major ports may help to close the gap.
The Home Office figures disclose that the highest number of asylum applications was from Iran, with 750 claimants. The second highest was from the tiny east African state of Eritrea, with 625 claimants, more than double the previous quarter.
The Prime Minister's spokesman said: "What this has underlined is the difficulty of what it is we are trying to do. But we believe we will meet it. It is unfortunate we didn't meet it as per the original deadline, but given how far back we started it shows a considerable degree of progress."
The Home Office said that 293,000 east Europeans had applied to work in Britain since the expansion of the European Union in May last year, far above initial estimates. More than half are Polish (169,675), followed by Lithuanians (39,690), Slovakians (30,735) and Latvians (19,915).