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Thursday, 25 April, 2002, 09:47 GMT 10:47 UK
Six Forum: Ask the Refugee Council about asylum

  Click here to watch the forum.  

The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, is pledging to toughen up the UK's asylum and immigration policies.

The measures include English language tuition for asylum seekers, tighter border controls, and a crackdown on bogus marriages.

They were outlined by Mr Blunkett ahead of a second reading debate in the House of Commons of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill.

Mr Blunkett says that a failed asylum system and the friction caused by it within communities acted as a "firelighter" for the BNP and others.

Is a shake-up needed in Britain's asylum and immigration laws? What do you feel needs to be be done?

We put your questions about Britain's asylum and immigration policies to Refugee Council chief executive Nick Hardwick in a live forum for the BBC's Six O'clock news, presented by Manisha Tank.


Manisha Tank:

Stuart, UK: Although we are being constantly reminded how well off this country is, in reality all these immigrants must be placing a drain on all of the countries' resources. Why do we have to receive any asylum seekers?

Nick Hardwick:

Refugee and asylum seekers don't, in the long run, put a burden on this country. All the evidence from respected academic institutions is that in the end, migrants and refugees contribute far more to the economy than they take out.

Let's look at one example, in the Health Service, where we know that one of the problems with the Health Service is simply getting the staff to work on the wards and provide the help that patients need. We need migrants to do those kinds of jobs.

But there is also a moral issue here. We have an obligation to refugees partly because all the great faiths encourage us to provide assistance to strangers in distress. And because after the Second World War when hundreds of thousands of Jews were turned away from countries to their deaths on continental Europe, the international community said we will never make that mistake again. We will make sure that people who are being persecuted will be able to find safety and I think it's too soon yet to forget those lessons. We need to remember what the asylum system is about - it's about protecting people who are in fear of their lives because they're being persecuted because of their religion or their political persuasion or because they're espousing the sorts of values we think are really important.

Manisha Tank:

But understandably there are some viewers who are asking - how are we different to any EU country. We've had an email from Nick D, UK: Why are asylum seekers that have made their way to the UK via other "friendly" countries considered for asylum at all? No asylum seekers should be coming via the cross-channel ferry or tunnel as they are already safe from war and oppression in France, Belgium, or Holland.

Nick Hardwick:

If you look at the numbers of asylum seekers who come to the UK and you compare that with other European countries but you look at it as a proportion of the existing population, then we're almost exactly at the European average. The idea that we take more than our fair share isn't true.

But if you talk about the scenes we've all been seeing at Sangatte - then those are a disgrace and that's not how the system is supposed to work and the French authorities need to deal with those people on their side of the border. But often people do want to come here for very good reasons - because they've got family or friends here or because they already speak English and we need a system that actually treats people like human beings and enables people to make those sorts of connections.

Manisha Tank:

Pete in Manchester has sent us a text message addressing the same subject and you've already addressed why asylum seekers come here. But he is asking: is it actually because we are too much of a soft touch? And many have asked that question about the UK.

Nick Hardwick:

I don't think we are a soft touch. If you look at all the evidence, I don't think people are travelling halfway across the globe sometimes because they fancy a life of luxury in some kind of seedy British lodging house and until very recently, supported on vouchers on below subsistence incomes. People leave their own country because they are in fear of their lives or because their circumstances are so desperate they just don't feel they can cope there any more.

Most refugees do what they've always done - if they walk on foot from one very poor country to another. The numbers who come to the UK are normally because of the links they already have with this country or because they think the UK is a fair and free country that's tolerant and diverse and where they'll be welcomed and I think we should be proud of the welcome that we do give to a tiny proportion of the world's refugees.

Manisha Tank:

Indeed we should be proud but at the same time there are those that perhaps take advantage of the situation. We have had another email from the UK regarding false asylum seekers this time. C Grock, UK asks: regarding false asylum seekers, what is the Government planning to do about the estimated 500,000 illegal asylum seekers already in the country?

Nick Hardwick:

What tends to happen in this, people pluck figures out of the air and of course asylum seekers are here legally - they are not here illegally - and we have laws to enable people to make those asylum claims.

I accept we need a fair and credible decision-making process. I think that most people would support a system that quickly and fairly identified those people who needed protection so they can be welcomed and helped to rebuild their lives here. But if people are found not to need that protection and there's no other compelling reason why they should stay, then I agree they should go back home and we need a system that delivers that. I think that's what in the interest of refugees - it's not that you just have to help those individual refugees - you have to have a system that commands public confidence and manifestly for a lot people we don't have that at the moment.

Manisha Tank:

And essentially, we should also understand the difference between illegal immigrants and asylum seekers.

Nick Hardwick:

I think it is very important to make that distinction - asylum seekers are here legally.

Manisha Tank:

Nicci Crofts, England: I am a volunteer who has set up a social group for asylum seekers, refugees and British students in Newcastle. I agree with the Home Secretary when he says that integration is a key to the asylum system working. However, how can this be achieved when plans are afoot to educate the children of asylum seekers away from mainstream education?

Nick Hardwick:

I think it's really good that Nicci is helping with refugees in Newcastle. For all the people who are against refugees there's loads of people, like Nicci, doing really important work.

If everyone agrees that if refugees are going to be here, they should integrate into the mainstream society and the best place for that to happen is at the school gates and on the school playground. I think it is a real mistake to take refugee children out of the mainstream education system and if you are going to provide education for them separately that would be far more expensive. It would be much better to help schools with a bit of assistance they need so that refugee children can be educated alongside other children enriching the whole school community.

Manisha Tank:

N Hawkins, UK: My wife is Canadian, has lived here with her own flat and job for 4 years yet is being deported. Are "easy" targets being picked on in an effort to make the immigration statistics look better?

Kate Francis, South Africa: I am British, having been born and educated there for part of my life. I have been in South Africa for approximately 15 years and married a South African almost three years ago. With the proposed changes in mind - how are we going to be expected to prove our marriage is not a sham or a convenience? And even if we do prove that how would we survive as a couple if my husband is not allowed to work?

John Smith, UK (writing under a pseudonym - married to a Polish woman still in Poland): What assurances can people like me expect from the Government that it is purely interested in dealing only with the bogus-marriage problem and will not persecute those genuine, happy-married people whose only crime is that they fell in love with a foreigner?

Nick Hardwick:

If we take N Hawkins, whose wife is being deported to Canada first of all - why indeed is his wife being deported? You have somebody here who is, by all accounts, paying her way, living happily and not being a problem to anyone and why do we have a system that says actually this country is full up and that people like to go back? If it applies to somebody from Canada, it applies to somebody from Afghanistan or Iran . What's the problem and why are these people being sent back?

As for the question about marriages, I think these people make a very good point - how do you prove your marriage is genuine, what's the test? No rows over a year period? This is a very complicated area - with those people who have got those sorts of individual problems, they do need to get good quality advice on that. They need either to go to a Citizens Advice Bureau or get good quality legal advice and make sure that the people who are advising them know what they're talking about. I wouldn't want to get too much into the detail without knowing more about the individual circumstances.

Manisha Tank:

Ben Drake, York, UK: Doesn't this sort of legislation, which wrongly implies that immigrants are a problem and a burden, actually increase the credibility of the BNP and NF? Don't figures show that every time a new, even harsher immigration law is passed, the Far Right ends up winning more votes?

Nick Hardwick:

I think that's a real debate. I think the legitimate mainstream parties will never be able to outbid the Far Right on being tough on asylum and the more that the mainstream parties say there's a problem with asylum or immigration, the more they play into the hands of the extreme Right and that threatens us all.

We need to have a properly managed, credible transparent asylum system but we also need people in senior political positions making a case about why Britain has an obligation to refugees and why migration generally enriches this country economically and culturally and we need that case made.

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