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Newsnight Friday, 7 February, 2003, 18:24 GMT
'Asylum claims will be halved' - Blair
There were 92,000 asylum applications in 2001
Tony Blair has said he thinks asylum applications can be halved by September this year.

In an interview with BBC Newsnight to be broadcast on Friday, the prime minister says he wants asylum seeker numbers cut by 30% or 40% "in the next few months".

The only way of dealing with this is to stop the numbers coming in

Tony Blair

But refugee groups are worried human rights could suffer in the quest to meet the targets, while opposition parties say Mr Blair is making empty promises.

Figures due to be released later this month are expected to show asylum applications reached a record 100,000 last year.

In 2001, there were 92,000 asylum applications - including family members.

Mr Blair says: "I would like to see us reduce it by 30 or 40% in the next few months and I think by September we should have it halved."

Specific targets

The Home Office says the "baseline" for Mr Blair's pledge would be figures for October last year.

That means the numbers of principal asylum seekers - and not counting their families - should be cut to about 4,500 a month by September.

By giving specific figures, Mr Blair is showing strong faith that recently introduced measures will get dramatic results.

Oakington reception centre
More reception centres like Oakington are planned
Those measures include benefits changes, fingerprinting of asylum seekers and moves to detain suspected terrorists.

Home Secretary David Blunkett this week said asylum claims from Albania, Bulgaria, Jamaica, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro would now be presumed to be unfounded.

'Prevention the cure'

During the interview, Mr Blair acknowledges the continuing problems in deporting failed asylum seekers once they enter the UK.

Top applicants by nation Jul-Sept
4,300: Iraq
2,105: Zimbabwe
2,095: Somalia
1,555: Afghanistan
955: China

"The only way of dealing with this is to stop the numbers coming in," he says.

"Once people get in, unless you can discover what country they come from and get that country to agree to take them back, then it is very difficult to get them back."

He points to immigration officials being stationed in French ports as part of efforts to prevent unfounded asylum applications in the first place.

Mr Blair says there has been "change in public mood" over asylum, and the issue people must not be allowed to exploit it for the wrong reasons.


Mr Blair shuns Conservative calls for all new asylum seekers to be detained while they are security checked.

He says: "We would need many, many centres and many, many camps."

He insists proper security screening for potential terrorists is taking place and stresses asylum is a problem for many nations, not just the UK.

'Broken promises'

Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith said there would only be real action if ministers said they would only take certain quotas of asylum seekers.
Iain Duncan Smith, Tory leader
Duncan Smith: Blair offering targets, not real action

"Right now, this is promises and targets from a government that has failed endlessly to meet any of their promises and targets," added Mr Duncan Smith.

Liberal Democrat home affair spokesman Simon Hughes said Mr Blair was being "ludicrous".

No prime minister could control the number of asylum seekers in the world at any time, argued Mr Hughes.

Instead, Mr Blair was trying to anticipate new rises in asylum claims by making a new promise, he added.

That scepticism was echoed by Keith Best, chief executive of the Immigration Advisory Service.

Mr Best said: "This is pie in the sky...

"What this government can't seem to get to grips with is the fact that quite a lot of asylum seekers are genuine."

War worries

Margaret Lally, from the Refugee Council, suggested Mr Blair's words were the result of media attention on the asylum issue.

"It does force people into making statements which they may not be able to deliver on," Ms Lally told BBC News.

The targets sparked concern among other refugee groups too.

Sandy Buchan, chief executive of Refugee Action, said an "onslaught" on asylum numbers must not be at the expense of protecting fundamental human rights.

"Now more than ever, as the world teeters on the bring of war, protecting refugees is paramount."

Mr Blair's interview with Newsnight was broadcast at 22:30 GMT on Friday, 7 February.


Talking PointTALKING POINT
Romanian refugees arrive in BritainBlair on asylum
Is it realistic to halve applications?

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