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Monday, January 25, 1999 Published at 18:02 GMT

UK Politics

Asylum seekers surge to record level

Many refugees have come to the UK from the former Yugoslavia

A record number of refugees claimed asylum in the United Kingdom last year, government figures have shown.

A total of 46,015 immigrants applied for asylum, slightly more than the previous record set in 1991.

But the figure is more than 40% up on the previous year's total of 32,500.

Asylum applications peaked in September and surged again in December.

The Home Office also revealed a 64,770 cases of asylum application still have to be ruled on, with only 31,570 being judged last year.

The government has promised to tackle the problem of growing numbers of asylum seekers by introducing measures to stop the flood of refugees.

Key proposals to be published later this year include the end of cash benefits for asylum seekers who will instead be given vouchers for food, clothes and toiletries by a new Home Office agency.

The appeal system will also be reformed and immigration advisers will be checked to weed out the unscrupulous who exploit vulnerable refugees.

Truckers' objections

Another plan to try to stop the flow of illegal immigrants by fining truckers caught carrying stowaways has run into stiff opposition from drivers.

But Immigration Minister Mike O'Brien insisted on Monday that the number of illegal immigrants arriving at British ports was falling.

He said 2,000 people had been caught by French police in Calais planning to travel to Dover without documents during a six-month period last year and seven people had been successfully prosecuted recently for running refugee smuggling operations.

Mr O'Brien said: "We are determined to deal with the problem of illegal immigration and to tackle it on many different fronts."

But the Immigration Service Union has previously cast doubt on the effectiveness of plans to reduce the number of people who claim asylum and remain in the country.

Its interpretation of Home Office figures shortly before the government unveiled its proposals in the Queen's Speech showed less than 10% of the 268,595 asylum seekers who arrived in Britain in the past decade received the refuge they sought.

But fewer than 20,000 people actually left or were removed from the country and 59,198 people remain unaccounted for.

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