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Tuesday, 25 January, 2000, 14:05 GMT
Head to head: Is Britain a soft touch for refugees?
The latest Home Office figures show more refugees sought sanctuary in the UK during 1999 than ever before. Is it because Britain is a soft touch?
Hidden behind the vitriolic headlines that accompany the arrival of asylum seekers are the men, women and children who've fled atrocities and suffering that no one should have to bear and risked their lives to find safety.
Britain has a proud tradition of providing that sanctuary.
In 1999, Britain has received people fleeing war and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, the brutal repression of Afghanistan and the persistent troubles of Somalia.
Like the rest of Europe we have witnessed an increase in asylum applications but what has received less public attention is that the number of people the Home Office recognises as needing protection has also increased.
In fact, a majority of decisions made by the Immigration Service in 1999 were positive. To unravel the myth that only a tiny number of asylum seekers are genuine, when looking over a longer period of time one can see that the underlying trend shows that about 40% of all asylum applications are ultimately successful.
When someone arrives in Britain and requests asylum the level of support to which they're entitled is actually well below the poverty line and equals about £30 a week, of which only £10 is in cash.
The rests comes in the form of vouchers that can only be spent in designated supermarkets - so that means not getting the most of what little they have at markets and best value shops.
Ironically, for all the posturing that would have us believe we are being "flooded" by asylum seekers we actually receive fewer than most of our European counterparts.
What's more our measly £30 compares very poorly to the rest of Europe. The Netherlands is a far smaller country than ours but receives about the same number of asylum seekers and offers them £46 per week.
Of course, the real scandal of the situation is the years it takes the Home Office to make any decision at all and while asylum seekers wait in limbo they must rely on Government support.
They are denied the dignity to work for their living. Refugees' skills span the professional spectrum and if given the opportunity would like nothing more than to contribute to the wealth of our nation and pay their own way.
Asylum is not about numbers it's about people. If only this could be remembered when misconceptions are spread about asylum seekers and refugees, causing serious damage to community relations and placing asylum seekers in evermore vulnerable circumstances.
Fazil Kawani, director of communications, the Refugee Council
The cornerstone of refugee law is the United Nations Geneva Convention which was ratified 50 years ago and still applies. The central planks of the convention are thus:
- a refugee is someone who has a well-founded fear of persecution; and - a refugee must apply for asylum in the first safe country he or she reaches.
That means by definition that the people arriving in the UK, having crossed continental Europe, ought to have had their application considered elsewhere.
There is no provision in the convention for "asylum shopping" - the practice of choosing which country a refugee wants to settle in.
The reason why Britain has been flooded by more than 70,000 refugees in just 12 months is that we are considered a soft touch.
There are many reasons for this. The first is that our welfare system is still very generous when you consider the full picture.
Refugees might not receive big cash handouts, but they are also entitled to accommodation and can make use of our schools and hospitals.
Another reason is that the huge backlog of asylum claims - there are about 100,000 outstanding - adds to the honeypot scenario. Cases are dealt with in chronological order so refugees realise that it will take two, three, four years to judged, by which time they've disappeared into the general population.
The English language also has a bearing because people associate it with North America. An awful lot of economic migrants come here with the idea that eventually they want to go to the United States or Canada.
If the government is serious about stemming the flow of non-genuine refugees, they have to provide the back up to those immigration officers who man the ports of entry.
They must show a firm but fair resolve that would allow these officers to turn economic migrants straight back.
Britain is of course and island and one has to recognise that this status is a significant advantage when it comes to the problem of refugees.
I say charity begins at home, and that is in no way a racist or ultra-right wing argument. It's a case of preserving and nurturing the society we already have.
The government must spend quite a lot of money in order to second civil servants to the immigration department and clear the backlog as soon as possible.
Charles Wardle, MP for Bexhill and Battle
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