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Panorama
Portrait of an asylum-seeker
Panorama: The Asylum Game
Panorama finds widespread abuse in the asylum system
Panorama: The Asylum Game will be broadcast on BBC One on Wednesday, 23 July, 2003 at 2100 BST.

Undercover Panorama investigator Claudia Murg posed as an asylum-seeker, to find out if Britain really is a "soft touch'' for illegal immigrants.

In January this year I walked into a police station in Harwich, under the assumed name of Mihaela, claiming to be seeking asylum in Britain from Moldova.

I bought a fake national insurance card for 150 and a counterfeit European identity card for a further 190

Claudia Murg

It was the start of a six-month journey through Britain's official asylum system and the underground world of benefit cheats, forged identity documents and illegal employment that accompanied the process.

During that time I uncovered widespread abuse of the system and discovered how hard it is for a genuine asylum seeker to find help.

Official documents

I arrived at Harwich with no identification papers, just like 80% of the 500,000 people who have arrived in Britain claiming asylum in the last five years.

Papers often prove that stories are false, so many asylum seekers destroy their official documentation.

I was given temporary leave to remain in Britain and was told to keep in touch with the immigration service. But many who claim asylum here simply disappear after the first interview to avoid having their story uncovered and being sent back home.

Fake passport
Claudia was able to change her identity with fake documents
As Mihaela I was free to stay in Britain, but because I could not prove where and how I had arrived in Britain, I could not claim benefits and free accommodation.

In London, I was unable to find a bed on my first night - even a cell at Charing Cross police station - so I cheated and went back to my warm, comfortable home to avoid freezing on the streets in the wintry conditions.

The following day, the Citizens' Advice Bureau told me where I could get a bed, but I had no money to eat, so I was forced to find illegal work.

I got a job as a cleaner paying 55 for a 10 hour shift at a hotel in Victoria, who did not ask for any documents.

Working illegally

I bought a fake national insurance card for 150 and a counterfeit European identity card for a further 190.

I later discovered just how open the system is to abuse, finding work easily in Merseyside and Grimsby.

One employment agency spotted that my documents were forgeries, but they felt sorry for me and did not tell the immigration authorities.

So many of the asylum seekers I encountered abused the system, taking all they could from British tax-payers

Claudia Murg

In Birmingham, I met an asylum-seeker who rented his council flat for 350 a month while he and his wife and children lived in London. He also received a weekly giro cheque of 176 and drove a BMW.

So many of the asylum seekers I encountered abused the system, taking all they could from British tax-payers.

But, in Birmingham I also heard heart-rending stories from a group of genuine asylum-seekers who had suffered real hardship in Africa and had been caught up in the lengthy asylum process.

Soon after I started working, the High Court upheld a challenge against David Blunkett's policy of withholding benefits from asylum seekers who could not prove how they arrived in Britain.

After five months the immigration authorities refused my application for asylum and said I must go back to Moldova, which had been added to the "white list'' of safe countries from which asylum-seekers would not be accepted.

Fingerprint database

I made a fresh application in a new name and started the whole process again at a police station in Dover, posing as Mariana from Moldova, seeking asylum.

The government introduced an automated fingerprint system nearly three years ago, designed to catch people making more than one application for asylum. The sytem already had "Mihaela's" prints.

"Mariana" was finger-printed at the Immigration Service headquarters in Croydon, but despite a central computer database, no connection with my previous application was made then or when I reported back a week later.

It was only when I told them that I was a BBC undercover reporter that immigration officials discovered that I previously applied.

The problem is not the individual immigration officers - it is with the system.

Not all asylum seekers are cheats, but too many are. My experience proved that there is a vast black market in illegal immigrant labour, fuelled by forged documents and phoney papers.


The Asylum Game will be broadcast on BBC One on Wednesday, 23 July, 2003 at 2100 BST.

It will be immediately followed by a live debate about the UK asylum system from Liverpool called Face The Nation.

Panorama: The asylum game

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