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Programme highlights Tuesday, 6 February, 2001, 15:25 GMT
Immigration policy to be overhauled
Labour want to appear tough on economic migrants
Jack Straw has today laid out "an effective protection regime for the 21st century".

Protection, in this case, is against an uncontrollable influx of asylum-seekers, many of them economic migrants.

Jack Straw
Straw: Spoke of a 'protection regime' rather than asylum
In a speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research in London, Mr Straw described the international measures he believes are necessary in the face of what he calls a massive increase in the number of displaced persons.

The speech contains some radical ideas:

  • a re-writing of the 1951 Geneva Convention
  • an attempt to confine refugees to countries close to their homes, and therefore far from Britain
  • swift deportation of many of those who arrive here from across the Channel, and
  • a crack-down on criminal gangs who trade on the desperation of asylum-seekers.

    Labour, in other words, is determined not to lay itself open to charges - especially from the Tories - of being a soft touch for economic migrants.


    Refugee and asylum statistics are certainly striking. In the 1980s, there were roughly 4,000 applications a year.

    From a low-point in the early 1990s, the numbers of asylum applications, the tally of those recognised as refugees, and the backlog of cases waiting adjudication have risen steadily.

    Mr Straw's fast-tracking measures did achieve a reduction in the waiting-list from its peak of 100,000.

    Last year's applications still reached a record 76,000 - representing roughly 100,000 individuals.

    Is that a shockingly high figure? It depends entirely on your perspective.

    Measured per head of population, it's only the seventh highest in the EU - behind Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland, Austria, Denmark and Sweden.

    Only a fraction of 1% of the refugees adrift across the world end up in Britain: yet we do attract 6.4% of the entire world's asylum applications, and nearly a quarter of all applications to EU countries are made to Britain.

    These statistics - and Mr Straw's belief that the dividing line between refugees and economic migrants has become blurred - suggests to him that the international rules need to be redefined.


    Guy Goodwyn-Gill, a professor of International Refugee Law at Oxford University, disagrees.

    He told the World at One that the Geneva convention's definition of a political refugee - "someone with a well-founded fear of persecution", is perfectly workable, even after 50 years.

    Another of the proposal's in Jack Straw's speech is for a new, co-ordinated system of resettlement for an agreed number of refugees.

    That is a matter of particular concern for the Refugee Council whose Director, Nick Hardwick, believes that prosperous countries will simply cherry-pick the most useful and attractive asylum-seekers.

    In the meantime, we know that the Government is keen to take strong, short-term measures to tighten the existing regulations.

    At the weekend, the Observer revealed a joint Anglo-Italian initiative - headed by Tony Blair himself - to control the activities of traffickers who are thought to be smuggling 50,000 people into Europe through the Balkans - from countries like Iraq, Turkey and China.

    Jeremy Harding, author of a recent book - 'The Uninvited: Refugees at the Rich Mans Gate' - told the programme it would be hard for the Union to turn itself into a fortress.


    When it comes to the election campaign, the Tories certainly believe that immigration and asylum issues will help them.

    Their headline policy - of detention centres where all new arrivals would be held until their cases are considered - has the benefit of simplicity and clarity. And the Shadow Home Secretary, Anne Widdecombe, dismissed Jack Straw's initiatives as impractical.

    "There are 137 countries signed up to the Geneva convention. That means it's going to take a very long time to get any change," she explained.

    But the Tory proposal to lock up all applicants while their cases are assessed is also widely considered unworkable.

    Responding to all these political and practical doubts, the Immigration Minister, Barbara Roche, said that there was widespread international agreement on the need for a new look at the Geneva Convention - but denied that it would be "re-written".

    The question remains: if refugees are encouraged to settle as near as possible to their original homes - or at the very least, to seek asylum at their first port of call - would anyone be able to seek refuge in Britain?

    Ms Roche insisted that a new system would actually make it easier for genuine refugees to settle here.

    Nick Hardwick of the Refugee Council
    "Remember the 1930s when Jewish refugees were turned back from Britain"
    Refugee law specialist, Prof Guy Goodwyn-Gill
    The convention's definition, 'well-founded fear of persecution', is still a good one
    Jeremy Harding, writer on refugees in Europe
    'Fortress Europe' poses serious practical problems
    Immigration Minister Barbara Roche
    "We want to allow genuine refugees to come into the UK"
    Shadow Home Secretary Anne Widdecombe
    "We need a plan for immediately addressing the problem"
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