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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 July, 2003, 10:39 GMT 11:39 UK
Asylum questions: Are we a 'soft touch?'
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

Lunar House, the head office of the asylum service
Queuing up: The head office of the asylum service
The second of our five asylum questions addresses the notion that Britain is a "soft touch" compared to other countries.

Are we being taken for a ride by people who just want to come to our shores and live off the fat of the land? Or are we providing a genuine refuge for people facing persecution in their own countries?

First off, it is not easy to get into the United Kingdom. If you are a genuine asylum seeker, you cannot just walk up to a British embassy in your own country and ask them to take you in - it would identify you to your persecutors as someone trying to flee.

Elsewhere, if you are Czech Roma, your chance of getting on a flight at Prague airport is pretty low as the presumption is you're trying to pull a fast one on the UK.

In other cases, the government has increased visa restrictions. This list includes Zimbabwe, whose rulers have been denounced by our government for widespread human rights abuses.

But assuming you get here, unless you apply at "port of entry" you may not be eligible for benefits.

This highly controversial rule, partially overturned by the High Court, was introduced to prevent "in country" applications by people presumed to be already living clandestinely.

Rejections and refusals

Once you apply for asylum, it is far more likely that you will be rejected than accepted.

Note: Countries chosen as cross-section and do not represent a league table
An international comparison of acceptance rates shows the UK is roughly in the middle of the league table.

Canada and Scandinavian nations are among the most welcoming; Germany, which experienced large asylum numbers immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, has become one of the strictest.

The reality is that all industrialised nations have experienced an explosion in migration driven by a complicated mix of unstable regions of conflict, global forces of economic change and internal labour market demands.

All these nations have cut back the numbers being granted asylum and the UK is no exception.

Further rejections

One suggestion is economic migrants target the UK because they know they will not be immediately deported and will be able to live off benefits.

This is more complicated than it first appears.

Less than a month: 380
1-2 months: 145
2-4 months: 145
4-6 months: 60
Up to a year: 105
More than a year: 45
Source: Home Office
Firstly, the most unlikely thing a clandestine economic migrant with any knowledge of the system would do is apply for asylum.

Applicants are not only banned from working (a rule tightened in July 2002), they are also subject to greater state monitoring, including the likelihood of being dispersed at no notice to another area of the country.

In effect, an application is the same as running up a flag and declaring their presence.

Secondly, the UK is expanding its use of detention for failed asylum seekers. Individuals or families can be held indefinitely, without criminal charge or automatic review by the courts, for future deportation.

In what is fast becoming the most controversial case of detention, the Kurdish Ay family, including four children, clocked up a year in detention at Dungavel Removal Centre in Scotland on 16 July.

As that case shows, removal of failed applicants is not guaranteed - something which MPs and others have bitterly complained about.

Thirdly, the Home Office's own research found asylum seekers did not have sufficient prior knowledge of the benefits and entitlement system for it to be a significant factor in their decision to come here.

Reduced benefits

Finally, there are the benefits themselves. Both Conservative and Labour governments have cut entitlements since 1996, including the aborted introduction of vouchers.

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

Benefits are 30% lower than standard benefits. Those aged 18 to 24 receive 29.89. Single parents get 37.77.

Asylum seekers are not eligible for council housing; but because the National Asylum Support Service buys up spaces where it can find them, they may end up living on or near council estates.

Unsurprisingly, this leads some to conclude asylum seekers can "jump the queue".

What is beyond doubt is people can and do disappear into the system for years on end, and this is perhaps one of the issues at the heart of the 'soft touch' perceptions.

But it's impossible to safely conclude whether this is always a wilful decision on the part of individual, or simply a failure of the system unable to cope with enormous numbers.

And so, accepted, rejected or still waiting for a decision, it is not unusual for an asylum seeker to carry on living in a legal limbo for years, not knowing if immigration officials will knock on their door.

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