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Friday, 8 February, 2002, 11:38 GMT
Immigration minister Lord Rooker
To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:

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The Government has published its long-awaited proposals for the reform of the UK's immigration, asylum and citizenship systems.

The White Paper is wide-ranging and includes measures to tackle labour migration, create a three-tier system for dealing with asylum-seekers and see an induction for new immigrants, providing them with information and English lessons as well as focusing on citizenship.

The proposals also suggest an end to the controversial vouchers for asylum seekers, which were designed to make Britain a less attractive location for economic immigrants.

Are the proposals far reaching enough? How would you improve the immigration system?

Immigration minister Lord Rooker answered your questions in a live forum.


The topics discussed in this forum were:

  • Ceremony and Oath of Allegiance
  • Swearing allegiance
  • Asylum and citizenship
  • Segregated education for refugees
  • Economic migrants
  • Green Card scheme

    Ceremony and Oath of Allegiance


    Newshost:

    Stephen Fyfe, Scotland, UK: Minister, can you tell us exactly what you intend to be in ceremony and in the Oath of Allegiance?


    Lord Rooker:

    The pledge, as it is, rather than oath - it is a swearing but they call it the citizenship pledge - it's only a draft in the White Paper, it's open to consultation. Basically, what we we've done - and we've modelled this on the Canadian oath - is modernise the existing archaic oath that people take now who want to become citizens. That happens every day in this country - tens of thousands of people become citizens every year - they have to go to a solicitor's office and do an oath. We've modernised the language and we've based it very much on the Canadian oath, but it will be a citizenship pledge. It will be carried out at a ceremony and not carried out in an office then put in a brown paper envelope and posted off. It will be carried out in a ceremony - maybe at the register office, maybe with your family, it may be a group of people who are going through the process. So we will make something of the issue of someone who is becoming a British citizen. Of course they will be required, as part of the process - in addition to telling us who they are and meeting all the other requirements of residency etc. - to show they've got a modest knowledge of the language and I don't think that's unreasonable.

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    Swearing allegiance


    Newshost:

    Rick Light, Scotland, UK: Why should new immigrants seeking citizenship swear allegiance as a subject to the Crown - when those who are born here do not have to go through such a degrading farce?


    Lord Rooker:

    That shows the ignorance of the society in which we are living. People who obtain nationality by birth - because that's how it happens for the majority - by definition get it at birth. Those who come here and apply for it now today swear an oath - there's nothing new we're introducing. We're introducing a modern form of words for the pledge and a ceremony to go with it but it takes place now. Anyone who thinks people coming into this country, who want to become citizens - not everybody wants to change their nationality by the way - that it doesn't happen now then I have to say is showing a degree of lack of knowledge of the society in which they're part of.

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    Asylum and citizenship


    Newshost:

    Emily Smith, UK: How can a person's need for asylum be based on whether they know the English language or not?


    Lord Rooker:

    To be honest, that's got nothing to do with it. Asylum and citizenship are just not connected in the White Paper or in reality. The citizenship test for nationality has nothing to do with asylum seekers. Asylum seekers come to this country - they don't have to speak a word of English and if they've got a well-founded belief of fear of persecution and torture under the 1951 Convention they will become refugees. They don't have to apply for UK citizenship unless they choose to do so. The two things are entirely separate. So the connection between asylum seekers and the oath just isn't there.


    Newshost:

    Text message: Asylum seekers may have been too busy trying to stay alive to learn English in their countries of origin?


    Lord Rooker:

    Quite right they may well. In fact when they get here they're first thought will be to get secure shelter and succour, which for genuine asylum seekers we will give as we always have done it. Their main event after that is to get themselves fit to go back to maybe they've come from to overthrow the terrible regime they've left and that's fine. But that's got nothing to do with people who want to acquire British citizenship and learn the English language - the two things are entirely separate and different. We do not connect them in the White Paper and we do not seek to connect them in our legal processes either.


    Newshost:

    Clearly some of the questioners have got them connected in their minds. Why do you think that they haven't made the distinction?


    Lord Rooker:

    I'm trying to disconnect them by giving the facts. The facts are that the White Paper today encompasses nationality, citizenship and asylum - they're not necessarily connected. But in the public's mind because of the sort of debates we have in this country - sometimes newspaper headlines - the need to talk in sound bites means they get connected. They are wholly disconnected and we're trying to make sure that's clear. It is clear in the White Paper that they are disconnected.

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    Segregated education for refugees


    Newshost:

    Bill Bolloten, UK: As a teacher, I am very concerned that the Government is planning to increase the number of places for refugee families in both detention and accommodation centres. Does the Minister agree that this proposed segregated education for refugee children will make worse the social exclusion of refugees in Britain?


    Lord Rooker:

    He has a good point. If that's what we were planning, he would be absolutely right because it's important for integration and for children that they are with the mainstream children. But the fact of the matter is we want to pilot accommodation centres for asylum seekers, maybe for the first six months whilst we take their claim - maybe their appeal. They would not be in the accommodation centres for more than six months and therefore what we want to do in those centres - which we've got to build and pilot before we decide whether to go down that road. Within that six months we'll provide health and education provision for the period they're in there. It will be a minority of families anyway - but we don't think six months will cause a problem. After that, if they are in the system, either being integrated as refugees or are going to be in this country for some time, the children will enter mainstream education at the point at which the families have been dispersed to and they're out of the accommodation centre. So it will be the minimum period possible.

    So far as the removal centres are concerned, legally we can only detain people with a view to removing them from the country. Regrettably, this does happen sometimes to families where there are children involved and therefore they're only there for a short period whilst we're getting the paperwork ready, getting the flights booked or maybe chartering an aircraft. They would only be detained anyway prior to removal if generally speaking the family has got a history of absconding and we can't find them. It's not long-term that families with children in any event would be in removal centres.

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    Economic migrants


    Newshost:

    John Marsh, UK: If an asylum seeker has travelled thousands of miles passing other safe countries on the way, aren't we entitled to assume he is an economic migrant and send him back?


    Lord Rooker:

    Yes we are in many ways because that's my first reaction as most people unless you're part of the legal industry that feeds on asylum seekers and people trafficking. If you've come through a safe third country, you'd think if you were really fleeing persecution and torture, you'd get yourself to a safe country and claim asylum and that essentially is the way the system is supposed to work.

    However, under our current international obligations, people arrive in this country from wherever they've come and claim asylum and we are duty bound legally to accept their claim and take them through the process. Now 90% of people who come claiming asylum have paid someone to get them here - the vast majority have come for economic purposes, there's no question about that. What we are seeking to do in the White Paper - there's a whole chapter about working and managed migration. We want to have a system where people know if they want to come for work, can come and do it openly and not feel as though they have to pay people traffickers to get them to the UK where they claim asylum, get into the system because that's the way you get in. We want to try and stop that if we can. We'll never be able to completely do it, but with all the other issues in the White Paper, we can make the best possible stab at it that we've been able to do, probably since the war.

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    Green Card scheme


    Newshost:

    Vladimir Vuksanovic, UK: How would the American-style Green Card scheme work? How many of them would there be and how will people apply for them?


    Lord Rooker:

    It will vary because there isn't one scheme for economic migration. We've just introduced a migration programme for highly skilled workers which we started on the 28th January. Time will tell us as to how that operates. We've got a very modern, very good Rolls Royce work permit system which covers about 140,000 people a year who come to work here - we're going to start charging employers for that because we don't see why the taxpayer should pay for it. We've already got a seasonal worker's scheme in agriculture which is very short-term - maybe eight or nine months a year - we're going to see if we can apply that to other industries.

    We've got a working holidaymaker's scheme which has operated for many years - 40,000 people a year take advantage of it. It's very much young people, white Commonwealth - we're going to put a consultation paper out on that scheme with some proposals for changes so we can make it more inclusive, if you like, and less restrictive. There are one or two other areas where we will modernise the approach for people coming for work and at the same time of course we're going to have a clampdown on illegal working in this country as well because people are exploited that way. People who come here illegally are exploited by people traffickers into bondage working illegally. Now if we can stop that happening and have more modern systems for people come here to work, it is less likely that people will go into bondage with the people traffickers and we are going to up the penalties for people trafficking as well.

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  • See also:

    07 Feb 02 | UK Politics
    Immigration shake-up unveiled
    07 Feb 02 | UK Politics
    The politics of asylum
    07 Feb 02 | UK
    Sharp end of asylum
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