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Thursday, 30 May, 2002, 21:07 GMT 22:07 UK
France praises Blunkett asylum plan
Asylum seekers trying to get to the Channel Tunnel
Talks are under way over Channel Tunnel security
David Blunkett's plan to deport thousands of asylum seekers from the UK before they can appeal has been welcomed by his French counterpart.


Raising the question of carrying out (expulsions) should not be taboo in a state governed by law

Nicolas Sarkozy, French Interior Minister
There were fears Mr Blunkett's proposal to expel refugees before they can appeal against failed claims to stay in the country would be met with anger in France.

But French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has said Mr Blunkett's proposals, which have been attacked by refugee groups, were "true to the spirit of good collaboration".

The news comes as the latest figures for UK asylum claims rose for the first time in more than a year.

EU-wide policy

Mr Blunkett's plan would mean thousands of asylum seekers whose claims were judged "clearly unfounded" would quickly be sent back home or to the last safe country they passed through - often France.

The French ambassador to Britain, Daniel Bernard, told BBC Radio 4's World at One programme, it would break conventions for the UK to impose the measures unilaterally.

But Mr Sarkozy, a member of France's new centre right government, welcomed the British home secretary's decision to tackle the sensitive issue of expulsion head-on.

"Raising the question of carrying out (expulsions) should not be taboo in a state governed by law," Mr Sarkozy told an EU meeting on immigration in Rome.

"We must go forward. When the decision to expel is taken in a country, it must be valid in all the countries of the EU", he added.

Asylum backlog grows

New figures for the first three months of this year show claims are being processed more quickly with officials hailing the 35,000 backlog as the lowest for a decade.

But asylum applications were up 1,520 on the last quarter of 2001 - the first rise for 15 months.

That is being partly blamed on the political crisis in Zimbabwe.

The overall number of asylum claims in 2001-02, however, was down 8,000 on the previous financial year.

David Blunkett, Home Secretary
David Blunkett says the UK will not tolerate "pseudo asylum seekers"
Mr Blunkett is now adding the new removal powers to the Asylum, Nationality and Immigration Bill, which is still going through Parliament.

Where possible, those asylum seekers affected would be sent back within a few days to their home country, from where they could launch their appeal.

If their country of origin is not safe because of war or their fear of persecution, they will be returned to the last safe country they passed through, such as France or Germany.

Mr Blunkett said the measures would cut down further on "clear abuses" of the system.

He believes about half of those asylum seekers whose initial claims are rejected would be affected - that would be 30,000 under current figures.

Cutting public's costs

"At present, an individual can make a wholly unfounded asylum or human rights claim then stay in the UK whilst the appeals process occurs," said Mr Blunkett.

"This is at the taxpayers' expense and can go on for months on end."

Asylum seekers at the Sangatte camp
The European Commission is under new pressure to act over Sangatte

The government acknowledges there will also be legal challenges.

Officials argue the plans comply with the international law and will run alongside talks with France and efforts towards a EU-wide asylum policy.

The news came as UK Government officials met with their French counterparts and European Commissioner Frits Bolkestein to discuss security worries at the French end of the Channel Tunnel.

Refugee support groups are concerned that once the asylum seekers are expelled from Britain they will have little chance of launching an appeal.

They may have no access to lawyers and making the bid from another country inevitably complicates the procedure.

'Pass the parcel'

Keith Best, director of the Immigration Advisory Service, branded the idea "clear nonsense".

The number of asylum seekers in the UK has increasingly been in the spotlight since the row escalated over the French Sangatte refugee camp near the entrance to the Channel Tunnel.

Conservative shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin said that with proper safeguards, the plans could work.

Asylum seekers trying to get to the Channel Tunnel
Talks are under way over Channel Tunnel security
 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Margaret Gilmore
"Under the rules many could find themselves returned within a week"
Home Secretary David Blunkett
"We're not taking people who simply turn up out of countries that are not persecuting them"
Shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin
"It might work"

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30 May 02 | UK Politics
30 May 02 | Europe
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