Britain's backlog in asylum applications is twice as large as the Government had previously believed, the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, admitted yesterday.
The revelation that the backlog is 43,130 cases – and not 22,580 as announced by the Home Office last month – was made after Mr Blunkett ordered officials to do a manual count of the files.
The discovery will anger ministers who had repeatedly highlighted the diminishing backlog as an indication of the success of Labour's immigration and asylum policy.
Refugee support groups will be alarmed that the apparent confusion in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate will further reduce the credibility of Britain's asylum system.
The hand-count of files – the first since 1996 – also showed that more than 4,000 more people claimed asylum in the United Kingdom last year than was previously believed, and that 860 fewer decisions were made than the Government had claimed.
The new figures show that 80,315 people sought asylum in 2000, compared with the provisional figure of 76,040, and that 109,205 decisions were made, rather than 110,065, as previously indicated.
Mr Blunkett said: "I am absolutely committed to the transparency, clarity and reliability of official statistics. It is essential that people have confidence in the statistics produced, especially on such an important issue as asylum."
The admission overshadowed an announcement by Mr Blunkett yesterday that five mobile gamma ray machines costing £9m would be deployed at Dover docks and the Channel Tunnel to detect clandestine migrants. The scanners – capable of detecting a human heart beat – are part of a package of measures intended to give extra resources to beleaguered immigration staff. The Home Secretary, who visited Dover docks, said up to 50 British immigration officers would be sent to work on the French side of the tunnel at Coquelles. A CCTV system for tackling illegal immigration will be deployed at Heathrow airport to complement an existing system at Gatwick.
Mr Blunkett said the new measures were important in the light of the terrorist attacks in America, which were likely to heighten global migration. He said: "This is not just a problem limited to Britain but it is a global issue of international mobility, which the uncertainties created by the horrific attack on the United States last week will accelerate."
Mr Blunkett will be in Brussels today to talk to other European ministers about strengthening arrest procedures and extradition for security purposes. He said France had agreed that legal proceedings would be taken against asylum-seekers trespassing or causing damage at the Coquelles terminal.
Because of the added security measures, the Home Office is no longer willing to exempt Eurotunnel from civil penalties imposed on carriers found to have brought people illegally to Britain. Eurotunnel will face a fine of £2,000 for every asylum-seeker who reaches the British end of the tunnel. The fines could run into millions of pounds. Home Office sources said 800 people claimed asylum at the Folkestone end of the tunnel in July.
Eurotunnel says 30,000 asylum-seekers have attempted to breach security at the French end of the tunnel already this year. The company says it has done all that can be expected of it to deter asylum-seekers entering the 590-hectare compound.
More than 300 security guards are employed each night to stop hundreds of asylum-seekers reaching the tunnel from their base at the nearby Red Cross centre at Sangatte.
Eurotunnel has begun a legal challenge in the High Court to have the Home Office decision judicially reviewed.