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Tuesday, 25 June, 2002, 15:45 GMT 16:45 UK
Refugees: Ask the expert
Harriet Sergeant, author of a report called "Welcome to the asylum" for the Centre of Policy Studies answered your questions on refugees and asylum seekers in a live forum.

  Click here to watch the forum.  

  • Click here to read the transcript


    The UK Home Secretary David Blunkett is meeting his French counterpart on Tuesday to tackle the issue of illegal immigration to Britain.

    The two men will discuss how to co-operate better to stem the flow of refugees trying to smuggle themselves into Britain from the Sangatte refugee camp in Calais.

    The Red Cross camp described the camp as a staging post for illegal immigrants heading to the UK.

    The Home Office estimates that 1,000 illegal immigrants try to access the UK through the tunnel each week.


    Transcript


    Newshost:

    Harriet, I'll go straight to some of the questions and I have to say that most of them are rather hostile to illegal immigration. Mal, UK: Sangatte needs to be closed. It represents chaos, disorder and loss. It must go.


    Harriet Sergeant:

    I think that's a perfectly fair reaction considering some of the stuff we've been seeing on television. I don't think it's going to make much difference if Sangatte closes or not.

    The Government wants Sangatte to close because it's very visible. Here are all these immigrants trying to get into this country - you can see them. If Sangatte wasn't there, they'd still be trying to get into this country - the gangs would still be trying to bring them in here - you simply wouldn't see them quite as easily.


    Newshost:

    Why do they want to get into the UK as opposed to staying in France?


    Harriet Sergeant:

    Because we have an insatiable demand for their labour. We have a thriving black economy in this country. I had a most interesting lunch with a man from the Inland Revenue who explained to me that the black economy is no longer on the periphery of our economy - it's central to it. The catering industry, for example, which relies heavily on illegal immigration, makes more money than shipbuilding, steel or coal.


    Newshost:

    Steve Morley, UK: I am fed up that we seem to be totally unable to stop people emerging from one tunnel. But then again the British are a soft touch - that's why so many people want to come here.


    Harriet Sergeant:

    I think that's not true. If you look at who is coming into country, 75% of the people coming into this country are young men between the ages of 25 and 35. They are not coming in here for welfare - they are coming in because they want to work and that's where they make their money.


    Newshost:

    Brian, Scotland, UK: There are probably some educated, valuable people queuing to get into Britain.


    Harriet Sergeant:

    I think that's a very good point. An awful lot of asylum seekers I've met are extremely educated and we waste their skills. I have an Afghan asylum seeker friend who is a heart specialist - he's delivering newspapers at the moment, he can't work.


    Newshost:

    Stephen W, England: How do you propose we tighten up security and put an end to illegal immigrants entering the country?


    Harriet Sergeant:

    That's the big question. I'm sure that Tony Blair would love to know how to do that. I think first of all we have to have a real political will that we want to stop illegal immigration into this country. A number of immigration officers said at the moment there is no political will. They feel that they're in a fight with a blindfold over their face and one hand tied behind their back. They feel they can stop illegal immigration if there's the political will to back them.


    Newshost:

    How do you think that Mr Blair did at the Seville Summit recently? He went in talking tough but seems to have come out simply with a compromise.


    Harriet Sergeant:

    Well I was a little perplexed about what he was saying. He was saying that we have to be tough on poor countries who are sending immigrants. Well these poor countries make an enormous amount from the remittances sent back by the immigrants. For instance, the UNHCR did a survey of this in the early 1990s and they discovered that in 1989, the Third World was making $20 billion more from remittances than they were receiving in official aid. So they don't care if we started saying - sorry we're going to penalise you - they're making far too much money from this.


    Newshost:

    Phil P, UK: Would it not be better to direct resources back at the refugees' country of origin? Then perhaps these migrants would stay and help rebuild a better country and not try and escape for economic reasons. I am sure it would be better value, we would gain trade and national kinship, rather than envy.


    Harriet Sergeant:

    I agree with Phil - I think that's a very good point and I think if they did stay back it might make an enormous difference and they could perhaps try and change their countries considerably for the better.


    Newshost:

    How many illegal immigrants or people wanting to stay, actually come into this country every year now?


    Harriet Sergeant:

    We have no idea. The Home Office describes this as a "knowledge black hole". Because of our crazy asylum policy - I called my report "Welcome to the Asylum" - we have no idea how many people are coming in here illegally, who they are or even how many people are going back home again and we all think of immigration as people just coming here and arriving but a lot of people are coming and going.


    Newshost:

    John, UK: Why isn't a clearer distinction made between refugees and illegal immigrants? The former have every right to protection, and the latter don't.


    Harriet Sergeant:

    That is a very good question. I sat in on a number of interviews done by the Home Office trying to decide that very question - who is an illegal immigrant and who is an asylum seeker. And the answer is, they simply don't know. You can question someone until you are blue in the face but you can't check their story. You can't, for example, ring up a police station in China and say did you have so-and-so in your police station at this period - they're not going to tell you even if they answer the phone. We simply don't know. I think anyone who has lived in the Third World - I spent some years living in Asia and southern Africa - knows that the definition changes day-by-day. One moment you may fall into the economic migrant category and the next moment into the asylum category. We simply can't check this.


    Newshost:

    Andy, France: The European Union should enforce the policy that says refugees should apply for asylum at the point of entry into Europe. They shouldn't be allowed to traverse continental Europe just to get to Britain.


    Harriet Sergeant:

    Well again how are we going to enforce this. I think that's a very good point but these young men are paying gangs 10,000 - 15,000 in order to come to this country. They want to come to this country because they want to work and they're not paying that money simply to go to some other European country where they might find it far more difficult to get work.


    Newshost:

    Isn't there supposed to be some kind of ambition though to get people to apply for asylum in the country in which they arrive to prevent this crossing of the continent?


    Harriet Sergeant:

    Yes. I think people are keen to do this but I cannot see how quite they're going to enforce it. The gangs, for example, have packs which they hand to asylum seekers with nail scissors thoughtfully provided in the packs with which they can cut up their own documents. So we have no idea where these people are coming from and they're not going to let us know that either.


    Newshost:

    Bruce Jones, UK: Close Sangatte, then build other facilities, better equipped and paid for by European money, at all points where the asylum seekers enter the EU. The seeker's claim for asylum should then be processed with a view to settlement throughout Europe on an even spread basis. Asylum should not be sought with preference for individual countries, but for the EU as a whole.


    Harriet Sergeant:

    I think that sounds a very good idea. One of things I feel is that we should be looking at the 1951 Convention again and perhaps even though it was very admirable at the time, that this is under certain stresses now and that we should perhaps be fixing some kind of quota which is what your correspondent says there, more or less. We should, as the EU, or as each country individually, have a quota of a certain number that we take each year and this could be spread around Europe, as he says - that sounds a very fair idea.


    Newshost:

    When you say the 1951 Convention - you mean the United Nations saying - you must accept people until you find out whether they actually deserve asylum?


    Harriet Sergeant:

    Exactly - you must accept asylum seekers.


    Newshost:

    Greg Jenkins, UK: If we gave asylum seekers exactly the same basic facilities as the rest of Europe, they would stop trying to get here by any means necessary. But closing the camp will create problems for French residents.


    Harriet Sergeant:

    That's probably so. I think again that goes back to why they come here is because of labour - they can work in this country because we want them to work in this country even though we can't quite make up our mind whether we want them or not. If they couldn't come here, then I am not sure whether they'd come to the rest of Europe in quite such numbers.


    Newshost:

    Do the French not want them to work there too? Surely the French catering industry is large as well.


    Harriet Sergeant:

    I'd have thought it was but they'd find it much more difficult. They have far more stricter criteria - I think they check it much more - about who you take on and who you can't, whereas here it is very easy.


    Newshost:

    Martin Garrett, UK: If these refugees are in France illegally, why do the French not deport them? It would seem logical to hold illegals at the point where they enter France, unless they are actively trying to get them to go on to the UK.

    He seems to be thinking - well maybe the French don't want them and they're shovelling them onto us.


    Harriet Sergeant:

    That is exactly what the French are doing. The French are, I think, quite happy with the situation that illegal immigrants or asylum seekers are passing through France and into the UK. They don't really want it to stop - they don't want them staying in France.


    Newshost:

    Vicky Pollard, UK: The refugees don't originally come from the Sangatte camp. Refugees will continue to make their way towards the Channel Tunnel and other means of accessing the UK whether the camp is there or not.


    Harriet Sergeant:

    Yes exactly. Whether the camp is there or not the gangs are making enormous sums of money from bringing these young men into this country and it's very convenient for them because a number of asylum seekers have told me what happens to them when they're brought and stopped at various points. At Sangatte, the gangs don't have to feed you or take care of you - there's a nice camp to do it. But if the camp is not there, they're still be bringing people through - it's just convenient for them.

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