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Wednesday, 25 April, 2001, 11:44 GMT 12:44 UK
The asylum seekers debate
The number of asylum seekers attempting to enter the UK has led to political controversy over the past two years.

Asylum seekers and refugees have now been right at the top of the political agenda for more than a year.

Numbers rose dramatically in 1999 and 2000 and sparked a heated debate between the main parties and pressure groups.

During the May 2000 local elections, Conservative leader William Hague sparked controversy after declaring that racketeers were "flooding the country" with bogus asylum seekers. But there was also criticism for Labour. One of aprty's biggest backers, the Transport and General Workers Union's Bill Morris, attacked the government's asylum policy as "giving life to racists".

The Liberal Democrats have previously reported both parties to the Commission for Racial Equality and, now, a growing row over an agreement to keep race out of the impending general election has become linked with asylum policy.

Facts and figures

There were more than 76,000 asylum applications in 2000, representing some 100,000 people, the highest ever number.

Top countries of origin (2000)
Iraq: 7,080
Sri Lanka: 6,040
Yugoslavia: 5,695
Afghanistan: 5,230
Iran: 5,170
Somalia: 4,795
Ex USSR: 4,140
Turkey: 3,925
China: 3,845
Pakistan: 2,825
The latest figures to come from the Home Office show that this year, applications are going down with 900 fewer in March 2001 than at the same time last year.

The trend for applications which have been accepted remains reasonably static at approximately 17% of the total, according to the Home Office.

But does that mean that the remaining 83% are "bogus" asylum seekers?

During 2000, some 24,000 applicants were granted refugee status, given leave to remain or permitted to stay on appeal.

A further 10,000 "backlog" applicants were allowed to stay on "pragmatic grounds".

These figures taken together represent almost 45% of the 76,040 asylum seekers who arrived at our shores in that year.

Refugee agencies say there are thousands of applicants missing in the system because the Home Office does not properly collate the figures for eleventh hour approvals.

They say that it could mean that the government is really accepting at least half of all applicants as genuine.


Destination UK?

While the UK tops the European Union asylum league in terms of sheer numbers, applications have risen across the whole of the EU. The government estimates the cost to the taxpayer to be less than a quarter of 1% of total managed public expenditure.

EU asylum applications: (2000)
Germany: 78,764
UK: 99,905
Netherlands: 43,892
Belgium: 38,072
France: 34,992
Opponents of successive Conservative and Labour governments say that the real problem with asylum seekers is the way that the applications have been processed.

In January 1999 there was a backlog of 68,430 outstanding applications. A year later this stood at some 102,000.

By last summer, 80% of asylum seekers were housed in London and south-east England.

The local authorities affected angrily demanded more cash from Whitehall to deal with the cost amid some signs of rising tensions between asylum seekers and local residents.

Since then, the government has part-abandoned a computer system that was supposed to speed up the processing of applications.

Conservatives said the move proved the government's asylum policies had failed.

Labour hit back, attacking the previous government for ordering the system in the first place.

Asylum seekers voucher scheme
Single 18-24: 28.95
Single 24 plus: 36.54
Lone parent: 36.54
Couple: 57.37
Child under 16: 26.60
16-17 years old: 31.75
For the past year, the government has hoped that its Asylum and Immigration Act would deal with all these problems in a "firmer, faster and fairer" way.

The government diverted an additional 600m to help clear the backlog and set a target of dealing with three-quarters of applications within two months by 2004.

The act's most controversial element remains the introduction of the voucher system to replace standard state benefits.

The Refugee Council predicted it would further "stigmatise and demean one of society's most vulnerable groups".

Initial academic research suggests that the vouchers are not a deciding factor in which country asylum seekers choose to head for.

In a recent BBC interview Immigration Minister Barbara Roche declined to say whether or not they were a acting as a deterrent.

The cost of the system has also been questioned. Home Office figures show that vouchers worth 5.1m were distributed last year - but the system actually cost 6.1m to administer.

Secondly, the Act introduced a 2,000 fine per stowaway for lorry drivers crossing the English Channel or elsewhere.

Within months of the scheme's introduction, more than 200 hauliers had been apprehended and fined with the government estimating that trafficking had dropped by a quarter.

Finally, the Act introduced a national dispersal scheme to lift the burden off south-east England.

But the programme has proved controversial and some MPs have complained about the quality of housing and support given to asylum seekers on arrival in other cities.

Party criticisms

Labour's policies have drawn attacks from both sides.

Those on the left criticise the system as doing nothing to help asylum seekers while those on the right say the government has failed to tackle the international racketeers profiteering from people who want to reach the UK for economic reasons.

The Conservatives have also faced criticism.

William Hague's proposal to take all asylum seekers into secure reception units appears to have been dropped after Home Office figures suggested the costs would be astronomical.

"Nobody in their sane mind would think that if you elect a Conservative government, we will lock up 30,000 asylum seekers [the next day]," said shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe in November.

"It will take time, possibly the whole parliament," adding that they would only return asylum seekers to countries already viewed as "safe".

European solution?

But across the Europe, there appears to be a momentum towards recognising migration as a pan-EU problem.

Evidence of this thinking has already been seen in the government striking deals with France, Italy and Bosnia aimed at preventing economic migrants making their way to the UK.

Jack Straw has also called for a rethink of the 1951 UN Convention on refugees so that the European Union could establish a list of "safe nations" from which it would not accept applicants.

This could, in effect, be a de facto international treaty against uncontrolled economic migration.

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