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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 July, 2003, 21:07 GMT 22:07 UK
Q&A: Asylum - myths or truths?
Q&A graphic
BBC South East's Home Affairs correspondent Richard Smith looks at some of the most common questions and misconceptions about asylum seekers and refugees.

How many asylum seekers come here - and do we have more than the rest of Europe?

It is true that last year the United Kingdom did take more asylum applications than any other country in Europe - 110,700, according to the Home Office.

Asylum applications per head of population in 2002
Austria - 4.6 per 1,000
UK - 1.8 per 1,000
European average - 1.1 per 1,000

That is compared with 92,000 in 2001 - a rise of 20%. Germany, the next country in the table, was far behind the UK with 58,100.

It is a different story though if you look at the number of asylum applications per head of the population.

Last year the UK received 1.8 applications for every thousand people living here.

Seven other European countries received a higher proportion of applications.

Austria topped the chart with 4.6 people claiming asylum per thousand people.

The European average was 1.1.

The reason why the UK has more than other countries is complex.

Many asylum seekers say they have no idea which country they will arrive in when they smuggle themselves inside lorries.

Others say they want to come to the UK because they know they will get a fair hearing.

Critics argue that the UK is still seen as a "soft touch" whose generous social benefits act as a lure to asylum seekers.

Cutting benefits certainly had an effect in Belgium - when that country ended giving financial support to asylum seekers and offered full meals, accommodation and health care instead, government officials claimed it halved the number of applications.

The number of asylum seekers entering the UK fell dramatically in the first three months of this year - down almost a third.

If this trend continues the Government looks on course to honour Tony Blair's pledge to halve the number of monthly asylum applications to 4,500 by September.

Where do they come from?

The origin of the majority of asylum seekers changes from year to year depending on the international situation.

Countries with most people applying for asylum in the UK (January to March 2003)
1. Iraq
2. Somalia
3. Zimbabwe
4. Afghanistan
In the first quarter of this year the top three countries of origin were Iraq, Somalia and Zimbabwe.

Afghanistan was previously the top country but is now in fourth place.

What's the difference between an asylum seeker and a refugee?

An asylum seeker is someone hoping to be given permission to stay in another country having fled persecution in their native country.

A refugee is someone who has been given that permission, and therefore in the eyes of the law is as entitled to live in the country that has granted them asylum as anyone who was born there.

Aren't most of them "bogus"?

According to the Home Office the majority are.

But just over a quarter of all applications processed in the first quarter of this year were accepted, and 20% of those rejected successfully appealed.

The successful applicants ceased to become asylum seekers, and became refugees.

The government says the increasing number of applications which are rejected is due in part to the creation of the so-called "white list" of countries.

These include Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic.

Why does the South East have more asylum seekers than anywhere else in the UK?

It doesn't - not by a long way.

It is true that Dover has been one of the most popular ports of arrival.

Number of asylum seekers arriving in Dover per day
August 2002 - 40
July 2003 - 8

But the number of daily arrivals there has fallen from around 40 a day last August to just eight a day now, according to Migrant Helpline.

Once they have arrived in Kent it is government policy to disperse them to other parts of the country as quickly as possible.

The only dispersal area in the South East is Hastings, where around 300 asylum seekers are supported in a hotel.

There is room for around 800 asylum seekers at three "induction centres " in Kent, where new arrivals are taught the basics of UK culture before being dispersed.

The only other asylum seekers in Kent and Sussex are those who arrived before dispersal began in early 2000 - according to Home Office figures these total around 1,000 - and "unaccompanied minors" who are looked after by social services.

By contrast there are more than 11,000 asylum seekers in both the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber.

Why do they get more benefits than people who've always lived here?

They do not - asylum seekers may be eligible for accommodation and/or support, although new rules state these benefits will only be given if the asylum is claimed "as soon as is practicable" on arrival in the UK.

A single person aged 18-24 gets 30.28 a week; people aged 25 and over get 38.26.

The number of asylum seekers entering the UK has fallen in 2003
A married couple get 60.03.

In each case this is less than people on benefit who are not asylum seekers.

A Home Office spokesman said there were "no circumstances" under which an asylum seeker would receive preferential medical treatment or better housing than anyone else, or money to buy a car.

Why are there so many young male asylum seekers, and why do they always hang around in groups?

It's true that the vast majority of asylum seekers are males, often in their teens or 20s.

But asylum support groups say there are specific cultural reasons for this.

It is often the young male who is at university, who is a member of a banned political group, who is forced by the government to go into the army against his will

Migrant Helpline

"Many cultures wish to protect their sons against threats and/or the possibility of them being forced into the Army to fight their own people", according to Peter Brown of the Kent Refugee Support Group.

Mr Brown also argues that it is safer to send a son to safety than girls, "many of whom are taken by the traffickers and forced into the sex trade".

Support group Migrant Helpline also sees strong reasons why most asylum seekers are young men.

A spokesman told the BBC: "It is often the young male who is at university, who is a member of a banned political group, who is forced by the government to go into the army against his will.

"By removing the main focus of the government interest, the political heat is taken away from the family at large.

"The cost of fleeing from a country is very high (US$10-15,000).

"Families will come together to help fund the escape of the son of the family, as it is more likely they will survive the dangerous journey to seek asylum.

"It is also hoped that should the young man's claim be accepted and he is given asylum, he will either be able to send for his family or work and send money home to them."

Campaigners say asylum seekers naturally fall into groups just as British people do when they go abroad.

They also believe asylum seekers feel less at risk from local people in groups - although there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that seeing groups of young men "in packs" in fact increases the hostility of local people.

Don't they bring a lot of diseases into the country?

Dr Peter LeFeuvre of the Dover Medical Centre believes he has treated around 10,000 asylum seekers coming through the town in the past few years, with very few of them infected with any disease.

I've seen more refugees who are doctors than refugees who have HIV
Dr Peter LeFeuvre

"In East Kent there's been a tuberculosis screening programme," he said.

"Six thousand asylum seekers have been screened, but not a single one of them has had TB".

Dr LeFeuvre says he has seen a few cases of HIV, but adds: "I've seen more refugees who are doctors than refugees who have HIV".

Dr LeFeuvre is disappointed but not surprised this myth persists.

"I think it has to do with a sort of feeling about the country being contaminated from outside.

"It's a primitive response to outsiders bringing things in. I don't think it's a new idea.

"It is like we feel our culture's being contaminated. There is no evidence but that doesn't stop people having views".

Why are they allowed to take our jobs?

"Asylum seekers cannot work," according to the Home Office.

It is known however that a number of asylum seekers may find work on the black market, such as fruit picking.

"The building trade in London would collapse if all asylum seekers were to go away," according to Peter Brown of the Kent Refugee Support Group.

Such jobs are unregulated and are often seen as the work that the native population is unwilling do.

Why can't asylum seekers from Iraq, Afghanistan or other countries where war is over go back home?

There is already an "enforced return" programme to Afghanistan, although the government says that each case is still looked at individually.

An asylum seeker
Asylum seekers receive less money than other people on benefit
But a Home Office spokesman said "changing conditions" in each country will affect the way in which applications were treated.

There is a "voluntary return programme" for asylum seekers from Iraq, with "enforced returns" planned for the "near future" as soon as conditions allow.

Many asylum seekers and refugees say they would like to return home if they felt safe to do so.

But Migrant Helpline believes that does not happen the moment the guns stop firing.

The spokesman said: "Most asylum seekers want to go home but simply because hostilities have ended in their home countries does not mean that it would be safe to return.

"The Iraq war is over, but there is still no permanent government to impose law and order and American soldiers are still being killed.

"Afghanistan's interim government headed by Hamid Khazai is able to impose law within Kabul alone.

"Outside the capital the country is run by rival war lords with several areas of the country no-go zones."

What is expected to happen to asylum seeker numbers over the next few years?

The Home Office predicts that numbers will continue to fall, following the expansion of the "safe countries" list, improvements in security on the French coast, and the targeting of people who attempt to cheat the system through so-called "benefits shopping" and illegal working.

But Peter Brown of the Kent Refugee Support Group is more pessimistic.

"History says that the numbers will continue to fluctuate and as one door closes another is found," he said.

The number of Iraqi asylum seekers is likely to fall following the end of Saddam Hussein's regime.

But other conflicts are almost inevitable, and when they do it is equally inevitable that the debate over the UK's responsibility towards its victims will grow along with the number of asylum applications.

If you have any other questions, mail them to r.smith@bbc.co.uk and Richard Smith will get back to you as soon as he can.

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