W hat marvellous news the Government had for us yesterday. Earlier this year, amid much derision, Tony Blair informed us that he expected the number of people seeking asylum in Britain to have halved by September. Lo and behold, thousands of people previously considering coming to Britain appear to have got his message.
Applications for refugee status in Britain have dropped by 32 per cent in the first three months of this year, down from 23,000 at the end of last year to 16,000. But while Labour is happy, others are not convinced. Now the hunt is on. Where are the missing 7,000?
Ann Widdecombe, alongside others in the Opposition, speculates that they may have been given work permits or other visas, which she says is just cheating. David Blunkett insists that she's utterly wrong in her cynical suggestions. Instead, this heart-warming achievement is the result of his tough new measures, enshrined in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act, which have filtered through to Zimbabwe and the Congo, persuading vulnerable people there that persecution by oppressive regimes is just as likely in Britain as it is at home. Hurrah!
Or maybe, this sudden fall in applications is just part of the warp and weft of refugee movement, a product of all sorts of subtle shifts in the planet's political and economic situation. The number of refugees reaching Britain has been rising since 2001. But there have been similar ebbs and flows since mass migration to Britain began half a century ago.
It's possible, for example, that some of the missing 7,000 are in Iraq, perhaps having waited around to see what liberation might bring, or in Afghanistan, more reluctantly taking part in a similarly hopeful experiment. After all, it was Iraqis who topped the list of nationalities seeking asylum in Britain last year, with Afghans trailing in third place, after Zimbabweans, who are clearly still finding the trip worthwhile.
The idea that the blunt instrument of war has had as great an influence as Mr Blunkett's new Act is not particularly outlandish. After all, while there's nothing quite like a war for creating refugees, the people motivated to flee by immediate danger tend to be ordinary people in the line of fire, or prey to disease and starvation. They tend to end up in the nearest countries they can reach, which is why the vast majority of refugees are absorbed into countries like India, while only a small proportion reach Europe and an even smaller proportion (2 per cent) reach Britain.
Those who get to these shores tend to have skills and therefore a bit of money behind them, which is how they can pay to get here. It is these people who may feel a greater responsibility to remain in their own country and help with reconstruction, when the threat of political oppression has lessened or ceased.
And anyway, when they do make the decision to come, far from making their calculations on which country is a "soft touch", they instead, when they choose at all, select countries where they know there is already an established community sharing their culture, which will be able to support them. Those in former colonies of Britain, therefore, tend to have ties that bring them here.
Sometimes, though, it is the ties and the languages of the organised criminals who arrange their passage which dictate their destinations. In this respect, it is the gangs of people smugglers operating out of particular countries and into other particular countries, which influence the shape of asylum in Europe as much as any other factor.
Of course, the funny thing about asylum-seekers is that even though they're constantly referred to as "bogus", they tend to come from countries where human rights abuses are legion. Which is why so many experts suggest that tackling human rights abuses is a more acceptable way of stemming the flow of refugees than waiting until they get here, then deliberating over whether they're simply attempting to turn being born under brutality and dictatorship to their own economic advantage.
In other situations, we might call such behaviour "snatching victory from the jaws of defeat". In this one, though, it is derided as unscrupulous and immoral, as if it were not a risk that makes perfect sense to any reasonably ambitious human.
Any suggestion that asylum-seekers tend to be resourceful and determined people, unlikely to head for Britain because they've heard the daytime television is fabulous and that they get cable in the home they're provided with on entry, is lost in the politics of hate, fear and racism.
Surveys, most recently one led by Dr Alice Block at Goldsmith's College, London, tend to confirm that migrants make "a positive and net contribution to the British economy". Indeed it is a liberal mantra to insist that Britain is, and always has been, economically revitalised and culturally enriched by refugees and migrants.
The fact is that Britain needs migrants more than ever, skilled and unskilled, and it is very strange that the dominant political climate should insist that the loss of 7,000 recruits to the country's vast economy is a good thing.
Whether 7,000 is a lot of people or a few depends, of course, on your point of view. One of the oddest thing about the debate over asylum is that the amount of applicants last year, reviled as the largest ever, could be more or less contained within a top-of-the-range football stadium. A political demonstration involving this number of people is regularly dismissed, on the streets of London, as barely worth registering. But when this amount enters the country, suddenly the political significance of such a figure is enormous, capable of destabilising the entire nation.
This huge influx of people who swamped Britain last year, stealing jobs, grabbing homes and swamping the education system, actually made up 0.2 per cent of the population. Labour had better watch out. If its asylum policy continues to make the strides it has in the first months of this year, it will start to become apparent that the flaws people resent so much in the jobs market, the housing supply, and the education system, have roots that are far closer to home than opportunistic hate-mongers of the far-right would have us believe. Or maybe not. There is always the possibility that the missing 7,000 are in this country illegally, defeated by the section 55 regulations which say they must be able to prove they have applied for asylum as soon as they got to Britain, be able to prove they are destitute before receiving benefits, and so on.
No one knows, by definition, how many people have entered Britain illegally. But the fact is that it is these people, without legitimacy, who are most vulnerable to exploitation and poverty, and therefore most likely to find themselves attracted to the crime or the extremism that asylum-seekers are so often accused of carrying out.
Surely it is far more attractive for immigrants to this country to be granted work permits or given asylum, pay their taxes and take their place in society, than it is for them to be driven underground and pushed at times into adopting high-risk strategies for survival? Instead, our attitudes and our Government's policies, are geared towards increasing the sum of human misery and degradation in this country, by denying the people who reach these shores the right to proclaim that they exist.