Reintroducing the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Bill, Kenneth Clarke withdrew from people seeking to enter the UK to visit relatives, or to study, the right of appeal against an immigration officer's decision to deny them entry. But he gave greater rights of appeal to would-be refugees.
The Bill, abandoned in the run-up to the general election, was revived as it emerged that European Community officials and ministers had been secretly planning a tough new asylum policy, which could make almost impossible for those from Africa or Asia to find sanctuary anywhere in Europe. If adopted by ministers when they meet later this year, the proposals could be introduced under immigration rules without recourse to Parliament.
Nick Blake, a barrister specialising in immigration law, said that the narrow definition of 'refugee' now being suggested by Community officials and ministers could cut by 60 per cent the number of refugees currently being accepted by Britain.
But yesterday Mr Clarke defended what he described as an urgent need to adopt a uniform policy towards refugees against a background of worldwide upheaval and massive movements of people. Since 1988, there had been a ten-fold increase to 44,000 people last year seeking sanctuary in the UK, although this year the figure is expected to drop to 20,000.
He said: 'Good race relations and a healthy sense of community in our society depend on an effective system of strict immigration control. My primary concern is to ensure that our asylum and immigration systems are fair and effective.
'We must recognise quickly the people who have legitimate claims to come to this country. We must also refuse those whose claims are unfounded - firmly, finally and without delay.'
Outlining his decision to clamp down on visitors' rights, Mr Clarke said the immigration appeals system was overloaded and there was a need to reduce the 26,000-application backlog. It was decided to restrict short-term visitors' rights so that officials could deal more speedily and effectively with those seeking permanent residence.
But civil and immigration rights campaigners said the move would be seen as racist because people from countries in Africa and Asia were far more likely to be denied entry than those from Australia or America. Claude Moraes, director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said it would exacerbate one of the greatest bones of contention among ethnic groups. 'It is very humiliating for a British citizen to have his or her family refused entry for say a wedding or a funeral,' he said.
But two major concessions in the Bill are likely to appease some of its earlier critics, who included many peers and senior churchmen. Most notably all asylum seekers, even those deemed to have a 'manifestly unfounded' claim, will have the right to an oral hearing. All others have now been given 12 days to seek legal help and put their case together under a new 'fast-track' appeal system, instead of the original 48 hours.
But other controversial plans such as fingerprinting would-be refugees and reducing their housing rights remain.
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