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Wednesday, 19 February, 2003, 14:56 GMT
'We must deal with asylum', says PM
Refugees arrive in Britain
Blair: Present situation is 'unacceptable'
Prime Minister Tony Blair said he may have to re-examine the UK's commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights if his government's policies to stop illegal immigrants from entering the country failed.

Mr Blair said there was "absolutely no doubt at all we have to deal with this issue", describing the present situation as "unacceptable".

The government should have the power to say to certain people: 'We don't want you here'

Iain Duncan Smith
He said the government would push through new measures to stem the flow of illegal immigrants in the UK if they were needed.

But Mr Blair said the key to solving the problem was to "substantially" reduce the number of applicants because under the convention asylum seekers cannot be removed to a country where they might be subjected to torture.

He said: "The present situation is unacceptable, and we have to deal with it.

"I'm under no doubt about that at all, which is why in the past few months we have been working very closely, myself and the home secretary, to take a whole series of new measures.

"We passed the legislation last November, that legislation is coming into effect now. It, for example, takes away the automatic right to benefits for asylum seekers..."


The measures include having British immigration officers in ports across France - and in other countries by agreement in the future - to stop people entering the UK illegally, Mr Blair told BBC's Breakfast with Frost.

"But if the measures don't work, then we will have to consider further measures, including fundamentally looking at the obligations we have under the Convention on Human Rights."

Iain Duncan Smith
Duncan Smith: Terrorists are using the asylum system
The prime minister added: "The key to this is to get the application numbers substantially down, because the problem with removing people is that, under the obligations we have, you cannot remove someone to a country where they might be subject to torture."

Mr Blair did not explain what he meant by a "fundamental look" at Britain's obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Terrible mess

Ministers have in the past considered proposals for limiting the number of asylum seekers the UK accepts each year and requiring applicants to make their initial applications from their home countries and to await decisions there.

Article 3 of the Convention outlines the right to freedom from being subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment.

A spokeswoman from the Refugee Council said: "That is an absolute right and it can't be derogated from."

But Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith said ministers should have taken powers to deport people who are a criminal or terrorist threat to the British public and he accused the government of being "weak" with its asylum policies.

The government had got itself in a "terrible mess" over the asylum issue which was now "out of control", he said.


"We want to welcome anyone who comes here for genuine political reasons ... but we're not seeing that at the moment," Mr Duncan Smith told Sky News's Sunday with Adam Boulton.

"The vast majority who are coming are coming for reasons that are nothing to do with real political persecution - either for economic reasons or as in a smaller number, but a significant number, now for criminal or terrorist reasons."

Simon Hughes
Hughes: Calling for a European-wide system for asylum
Mr Duncan Smith said: "We have got a problem because we now discover that there are terrorists who have actually used the asylum system to come to the UK and, it appears, to operate from here."

But this prompted Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrats home affairs spokesman, to retort: "The Conservative leader must not make unfounded claims.

"If he has evidence that a large number of asylum seekers coming into Britain are known or suspected terrorists, he should give that information to the authorities and give the facts rather than the hyperbole to the public."

Mr Hughes said it would be "quite wrong" to consider reducing the UK's international legal obligations.

"We have already pulled out of one of our European human rights obligations, to allow detention of people without trial, when no other European country has seen any need to do this," he said.

"The best way forward is improved organisation by the Home Office at home and a European-wide system for dealing with asylum applications."

Around 22,560 people applied for asylum in Britain in the third quarter of last year, a record for any three-month period, according to the Home Office.

The largest contingent came from Iraq, Zimbabwe and Somalia.

The BBC's Laura Trevelyan
"If these schemes don't work the government has signalled it will go further"
Alan Gibson, Committee to Defend Asylum Seekers
"The government's policies on asylum seekers have been terrible"

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See also:

24 Jan 03 | Politics
23 Jan 03 | Politics
23 Jan 03 | Politics
20 Jan 03 | England
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