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EDITIONS
 Friday, 29 November, 2002, 17:45 GMT
'Abused' asylum loophole scrapped
Sangatte
The Sangatte camp is due to close by April
A system which allows asylum seekers "exceptional leave to remain" in the UK is to be scrapped, the government has announced.

Over the last few years, I think the rules have become used in a much more general way than was ever intended

Beverley Hughes
The Home Office said the "abused" policy was to be scrapped as it revealed an 11% rise in the number of people claiming asylum between July and September compared with the previous quarter.

There were 22,560 applications received in that period, according to government figures released on Friday.

Refugee campaigners attacked the government's announcement as "pure spin", saying it would do nothing to help improve the crisis in the decision-making process.

Criteria

Home Office Minister Beverley Hughes said the figures were "not satisfactory".

Instead of renaming the process, the government should be explaining how exceptional leave to remain is a positive decision.

Refugee Council

Speaking of the scrapping of the ELR criteria, she told BBC Radio 4's World At One: "Over the last few years, I think the rules have become used in a much more general way than was ever intended."

The provision will be replaced by a new status of "humanitarian protection" for those who have protection needs but are not covered by the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Approximately a fifth of all applicants in the last quarter were permitted to settle in the UK under this criteria.

Rules

The government believes the new policy will reduce the rate of successful asylum applications from 25% to 10%.

Top applicant nationalities Jul-Sept
4,300: Iraq
2,105: Zimbabwe
2,095: Somalia
1,555: Afghanistan
955: China

A Downing Street spokesman said in 1997, 3,115 people were granted ELR, but by 2001 that had risen to 20,000.

The increase in asylum applications has pushed the backlog up to 37,200, although Friday's figures also reveal the number of initial decisions on whether to grant asylum rose by 4%.

The quarterly total of 22,560 new applications represents the highest such figure on record, a Home Office spokesman confirmed.

'Long queue'

A Downing Street spokesman said the government's strategy was "beginning to grip" and would deliver improvements.

But Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith argued that the growing backlog of asylum seekers' claims was the main problem.

He said: "New asylum applicants are simply joining a very long queue," he told the BBC's Asian Network

"We have to recognise it disrupts society generally if we have people here who shouldn't be here, and others who should who are not then properly treated," he added.

'Pure spin'

And Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes said the number of appeals over decisions suggests that "in some cases fairness has been sacrificed for speed".

Sir Andrew Green, chairman of think tank MigrationwatchUK welcomed the deletion of ELR status, but warned that the rising figures were "bad news for the Government and for the country".

The Refugee Council described the government's announcement on the change of ELR as "pure spin, nothing more".

A spokesman said the new category of 'humanitarian protection' was no different to the old one of exceptional leave to remain (ELR).

"The Refugee Council and others have always likened ELR to providing this, " he said.

The spokesman said the rise in ELRs was nothing to do with abuse, but was being used by immigration officers to reverse poor decision making at the first stage of the process.

He said government claims that the change would lead to less applicants being accepted, were wrong.

"Instead of renaming the process, the government should be explaining how ELR is a positive decision."

'Unfounded claims'

In the last quarter, 47% of applications to remain in the UK were granted by immigration officials. More than a fifth of initial refusals were overturned when asylum seekers appealed.

The government's own figures reveal the UK is joint 9th with Luxembourg in the league table of asylum applications per 1,000 of population.

Ms Hughes said the new figures predated the most recent attempts to reform the system which controversially included the setting up of accommodation centres and the planned closure of the Sangatte camp in France.

She said: "These figures are not satisfactory and demonstrate that we continue to take more than our fair share of claimants with an unfounded asylum claim."

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"Ministers have also changed tactics"

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