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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 July, 2003, 09:37 GMT 10:37 UK
Asylum questions: Are we being swamped?
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

What are the key questions that people want answering about asylum? In a five-part series, we look for the answers.

Are we being swamped by asylum seekers? In April 2002, Home Secretary David Blunkett thought so, citing the pressure on some schools and doctors.

If you live in Kent, the county that has witnessed the largest number of arrivals over the English Channel, you may hear someone use the s-word.

And it might have also been heard at Hammersmith and Fulham Council in west London. Two years ago, it had so many unaccompanied children claiming asylum that one social worker had more than 200 on the books.

In 1982, 4,223 people arrived to claim asylum. Twenty years later, it was a record 110,700, including their dependents.

That rise has come amid the global collapse in closed borders which came with the end of the Cold War.

Those 110,700 are the equivalent of a small town. So if you live in a small town, you may have heard the s-word yourself or even seen it in letters to the local paper.

Favoured destination?

In absolute terms, 110,700 was the largest number of arrivals to any industrialized nation in 2002.

As a proportion of the population it was not the highest figure, though. The UK lay eighth on that league table, receiving 1.8 applicants per 1,000 residents.

Austria, slap bang on both the old Cold War border and the people-smuggling routes from the east, received the highest proportion of applicants of anywhere in Europe - 4.6 arrivals per 1,000 of population.

Further afield, all the research by the United Nations and academics shows that the countries with the largest burden of unexpected migration are those closest to regions of conflict or humanitarian disaster.

So while one 2002 poll suggested people think the UK takes a quarter of the world's refugees, the reality during that year was approximately 2%.

What's more, the United Nations says the numbers of asylum seekers is falling across the industrialized world, not just on a local basis because of immigration restrictions in the UK.

The migration jigsaw

So where does asylum fit into total migration?

Calculating migration is complicated, not least because of the way the government collates the figures.

In 2001 (the last year for which we have full migration figures) there were 71,365 asylum applications, excluding their dependents.

Putting aside the millions of tourists, the government also:

  • Issued 108,825 work visas,
  • Extended 51,415 previous work visas
  • Admitted 339,000 students,
  • Accepted almost 55,000 spouses and children

Asylum applicants comprise 12% of this group. Of those permitted to stay permanently, refugees and others given exceptional leave to remain made up a quarter of the 2001 total.

What these figures do not show is how many illegal immigrants are working in the UK - many of them having come in on a tourist visa. We don't have a figure for this because the government says it has never been able to work it out.

Questions on the system

So is it the country being swamped - or is it the system not working properly?

Over the past decade both Conservative and Labour governments have struggled to win public confidence over asylum despite passing four major immigration Acts.

But critics on all sides say the system has failed to inspire confidence because it has neither provided cast-iron figures nor, on a more human level, dealt with the settlement of asylum seekers efficiently to everyone's satisfaction.

The Home Affairs Committee recently warned that the efficient removal of failed applicants was a precondition for the credibility of the entire process.

During the hearings for its report, ministers could not give the committee what it describes as "even a rough estimate" for the number of failed asylum seekers still in the UK.


As for settlement, the national dispersal policy which began in April 2000 aimed to take the burden off south-east England.

Dispersal was supposed to house applicants in towns or cities where there were already existing members of their community and sufficient adequate housing for the programme.

But new research by Icar, an academic unit specialising in analysing asylum, supports feedback from across the UK by criticising the way movements have been handled.

In the cases it looked at, it says government failed to address "legitimate local concerns and fears which are not in themselves prejudiced or xenophobic".

It found that if those concerns were not listened to, nor the questions of local residents not answered, then attitudes quickly hardened.

In other words, whether they were or not, people began to feel like they were being swamped.

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