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Thursday, 20 February, 2003, 17:28 GMT
Blair's asylum pledge rubbished
There were 92,000 asylum applications in 2001
Refugee groups and opposition MPs have greeted with scepticism Prime Minister Tony Blair's promise to halve asylum applications by September.

In an interview with BBC Newsnight Mr Blair said he wanted asylum seeker numbers cut by 30% or 40% "in the next few months".

He said he thought the numbers "should have" halved by September.

Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith said Mr Blair would not be able to meet his promise unless he set "certain quotas".
Iain Duncan Smith, Tory leader
Duncan Smith: Blair offering targets, not real action

"Right now, this is promises and targets from a government that has failed endlessly to meet any of their promises and targets," he said.

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes said the promise was "probably undeliverable".

"Wars and rumours of wars, famine and political oppression produce refugees.

"A conflict in Iraq could see thousands more desperate people coming to Europe for protection.

"If you deliberately make British asylum channels harder to get through, you will inevitably be turning away genuine refugees," he said.

War worries

Keith Best, chief executive of the Immigration Advisory Service, called the promise "pie in the sky" and unachievable.

As the world teeters on the brink of war, protecting refugees is paramount

Sandy Buchan
Refugee Action
"What this government can't seem to get to grips with is the fact that quite a lot of asylum seekers are genuine," he said.

"As we saw with the infamous 30,000 removals, we will see all sorts of caveats and re-interpretations of this new target to try to make it appear that it has been reached."

Sandy Buchan, chief executive of Refugee Action, warned against an "onslaught" on asylum numbers as a knee-jerk reaction to media pressure.

"Now more than ever, as the world teeters on the brink of war, protecting refugees is paramount.

"An open, constructive debate on a workable long-term vision for UK asylum policy is long overdue but must not be hijacked by a numbers game."

Renaming ploy

Harriet Sergeant, who wrote a report on asylum for the right-wing think tank the Centre for Policy Studies, said Mr Blair would cut numbers by reclassifying refugees.

"We simply rename half our asylum seekers economic migrants, give them work permits and let them into this country.

"There is an unlimited number of people in the Third World who have a perfect right to claim asylum in this country.

"The people who are actually coming here are not people that we have chosen, that the government has chosen, that Tony Blair has chosen, but are the people who can afford to pay the criminal gangs.

"It is the criminal gangs who are dictating our asylum policy."

Ms Sergeant said the only real way to tackle numbers was to alleviate poverty in the developing world, although domestic measures such as identity cards could help.

Fingerprinting arrivals

Figures due to be released later this month are expected to show asylum applications reached a record 100,000 last year, with 92,000 the year before.

Mr Blair appears to be relying on recent measures including benefits changes, fingerprinting of asylum seekers and moves to detain suspected terrorists, to cut the numbers.

During the interview, Mr Blair acknowledged the continuing problems in deporting failed asylum seekers once they enter the UK.

Top applicants by nation Jul-Sept
4,300: Iraq
2,105: Zimbabwe
2,095: Somalia
1,555: Afghanistan
955: China

"The only way of dealing with this is to stop the numbers coming in," he says.

"Once people get in, unless you can discover what country they come from and get that country to agree to take them back, then it is very difficult to get them back."

Mr Blair rejected Tory calls for all new asylum seekers to be detained while they were security checked.

He said: "We would need many, many centres and many, many camps."

He insisted proper security screening for potential terrorists was taking place, and stressed asylum was a problem for many nations, not just the UK.

The BBC's Margaret Gilmore
"Asylum claims have doubled in six years"
The BBC's political correspondent Reeta Chakrabarti
"The tactic is to try and make asylum simply unattractive"
Harriet Sergeant, Centre for Policy Studies
"It does not address the essential problems of asylum"

Romanian refugees arrive in BritainBlair on asylum
Is it realistic to halve applications?

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See also:

07 Feb 03 | Politics
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