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EDITIONS
Monday, 2 December, 2002, 11:19 GMT
Asylum: Can we trust the figures?

Calculating the number of asylum seekers in the UK - and how many are genuine - is difficult to say the least.
Sangatte refugee camp is closing - but will it make any difference to the numbers of asylum seekers coming to the UK?

The government seems to think it will but there are already reports that other channel ports will soon be the new gateways.

Top applicants by nation Jul-Sept
4,300: Iraq
2,105: Zimbabwe
2,095: Somalia
1,555: Afghanistan
955: China

As for the government's opponents, both refugee agencies and, at the other end of the spectrum, the self-styled Migrationwatch UK pressure group say it won't make a jot of difference.

They take a sceptical view of the government's determination to close Sangatte because of one simple fact: The numbers.

Over the past six years, successive governments in the UK have introduced reform after reform.

Both the Conservatives and Labour have tried to introduce policies to cut the numbers, including 67,000 applicants estimated to have come through Sangatte.

But as the latest asylum statistics show, the numbers continue to grow.

In the last quarter (July to September 2002) there were more than 22,000 asylum claims. Taking into account partners and children, this means some 29,000 men, women and children arrived at our shores and asked for asylum - the highest quarterly level on record.

The overwhelming majority of applications were made "in-country", jargon for not queuing up in orderly fashion at a port and handing in paperwork.

Instead, the majority of asylum seekers have their first whiff of the system when they are dropped at roadsides, some helped to get there by well-organised trafficking gangs, and find their way to the steps of town halls and ask for help.

The top five home countries of those turning up at the moment are: Iraq, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Afghanistan and China, all nations with a record of human rights abuses or ongoing conflict.

In the case of the Iraqis, they comprise the largest number at Sangatte and, in wider terms, have just been the subject of another government report setting out Saddam Hussein's human rights abuses.

One of the groups singled out by the government for action is Gypsies from the Czech Republic. Failed applicants have been removed publicly from the UK while there are also new checks at Prague airport. Applicants from Czech Republic were the ninth largest group in the last quarter, 620 people or one seventh of the number of Iraqis.

Deserving of help?

So how many of these people are "authentic" asylum seekers?

The problem is that it's very difficult to know because of the way the figures are presented.

Top applicants removed by nation (Apr-Jun)
575: Yugoslavia
150: Albania
145: Romania
140: Afghanistan
125: Pakistan
115: Poland
110: Czech Rep
100: Turkey
85: India
80: Sri Lanka
Internationally, the UN's refugee agency says the UK receives just 2% of the world's refugees.

Of those who arrived in the last quarter, the government says approximately 10% were granted refugee status - roughly 700 people a month or 2,080 for the period.

Does that mean the remaining 90% were false applicants? Not quite.

Over the same period, a further fifth (some 4,500) were given "exceptional leave to remain", a mechanism which allows people to stay if immigration officials believe they have a case but can't fit them into the terms of the 1951 refugees convention.

It is this mechanism the government says is being abused and plans to reform.

So subtracting those two groups gives the government its rejection tally of 68% of all applicants - some 14,000 people.

Missing figures?

The problem with this number is that it does not include those who win their case on appeal. That would reduce the number of rejected applicants to just over half.

So, we can comfortably say that at least 47% of applicants are genuine. But according to the Refugee Council, that's not the whole story.

It says there are no publicly available figures for the number of appeal cases "withdrawn" by the Home Office at a later stage.

"When the Home Office receives an appeal, its staff look at it before it is passed to the appeals panel at the immigration authority," said Jean Candler of the Refugee Council.

"The problem is that we know the Home Office is withdrawing cases when it realises it won't win.

"These decisions which could come many months after an application are not recorded.

"If they were, they would reveal that far more are being allowed to stay than the government is letting on. "

According to a figure put before Parliament, the number of cases withdrawn and given leave to remain in 2000 was 5,000 - some 16% of all the applications that year. No figure is available for this year or last.

Paperwork

Confused yet? Well there's more.

Some of those who are classed as false applicants, are never removed because they cannot prove their nationality. There is no country which can "take back" these people. Quite simply, this undocumented group are lodged in a stateless legal limbo, neither accepted as genuine nor deported for being bogus.

Finally, there is the paperwork test. In the last quarter, almost 3,000 people (14% of applicants) were failed on "non-compliance grounds".

This means they failed to get their paperwork right.

"These rejections make no assessment of the actual merits of the case," said Jean Candler.

"In the majority of these cases, people are rejected because they did not correctly complete a form. The application booklet is 19 pages long and entirely in English.

"If someone needs legal advice to complete it, and most asylum seekers do, they only have 10 days to get it before it's too late. Many cases are being rejected because they can't get a lawyer in time.

"We don't know whether these people have valid cases or not - but neither does the government. To describe them as failed asylum seekers is completely false."


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