Asylum claims in Britain at a 13-year low, says UN

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The Independent Online

Numbers of asylum-seekers claiming refugee status in Britain have fallen to a 13-year low, the United Nations will disclose tomorrow.

But it will question whether tougher border controls are keeping out people genuinely fleeing persecution and call on the Government to take advantage of the drop by improving conditions for asylum-seekers already in the country.

The UN will say numbers of refugees received in industrialised countries including Britain has fallen consistently over the past four years. It attributes the drop partly to increased stability in former trouble-spots such as the Balkans, and partly to the "introduction of restrictive asylum policies across Europe".

A total of 30,460 asylum claims were made in Britain last year, a fall of 25 per cent on the 40,620 registered in 2004, and less than one third of the 103,080 claims made in the peak year of 2002. It is the lowest figure since 1993.

Tomorrow's report by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will fuel ministers' hopes that they are succeeding in taking the sting out of a bitterly divisive political issue.

Stricter border checks, the use of technology to detect illegal migrants and the closure of the Sangatte refugee camp in northern France have all contributed to the drop. Europe experienced a 16 per cent decline in asylum applications over the period. In the past four years, the number of asylum-seekers arriving in all industrialised countries has fallen by half.

This country still receives the third-highest numbers of asylum-seekers - 9 per cent of the total claims worldwide -- behind France and the United States. But four years ago, it topped the international league table for asylum claims.

The High Commissioner for UNHCR, António Guterres, will say: "These figures show that talk in the industrialised countries of a growing asylum problem does not reflect the reality ... Industrialised countries are now in a position to devote more attention to improving the quality of their asylum systems, from the point of view of protecting refugees, rather than cutting numbers."

Tony McNulty, the immigration minister, said: "The Government is working hard to increase the number of failed asylum-seekers being removed from the UK by increasing voluntary returns and through faster, more tightly managed processes for non-detained asylum cases."

But the UNHCR also raises the alarm over a 27 per cent increase in numbers of Iraqi asylum-seekers in the past year, "reflecting the deteriorating situation" in the country, although the numbers claiming refuge in Britain remained stable.

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