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Monday, 10 February, 2003, 11:29 GMT
Ministers back down on asylum pledge
Asylum seekers
Blair aims to "halve" asylum applications by September
The prime minister's promise to halve the number of asylum seekers arriving in Britain is an "objective", not a target, the Home Office has said.

Refugee groups and opposition MPs had already greeted with scepticism Tony Blair's pledge to halve the numbers by September.

Home Secretary David Blunkett told colleagues the pledge was "undeliverable", the Sunday Telegraph reported.

The Home Office refused to comment on that, but said Mr Blair's statement was "a longer term objective for years to come".

It is an indicator of progress rather than a target as such

Home Office

Mr Blair said on Friday that 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.

A senior minister told The Sunday Telegraph: "David said he is treating it as a direction, rather than a target."

However, Mr Blunkett thought the numbers could be halved by next year, the source said.

'Wrong approach'

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes said the Home Office was focusing on "the wrong objective".

"The Government should be concentrating on establishing a sane system for the whole of Europe which processes asylum claims fairly, deals with them speedily and returns those who fail in an effective and intelligent way," he said.
Does the Government have a target or a commitment to reduce asylum applications by half by September or not?

Oliver Letwin, Shadow Home Secretary

"We should be setting examples and leading the way to the international solution, not responding to short-term populist pressure."

Shadow Home Secretary Oliver Letwin said the comments have created "a state of complete confusion".

"Does the Government have a target or a commitment to reduce asylum applications by half by September or not?" he asked.

Immigrants 'vanishing'

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.

The Sunday Telegraph said that of these, 82,000 were turned down and ordered to leave, but did not - and so could be assumed to be living illegally in Britain.

Public protest at plans to use the Coniston Hotel in Sittingbourne, Kent, to house asylum seekers
Asylum fears have led to public protests in the UK
The paper also said it had seen unpublished Home Office figures showing that 329,714 refugees have been ordered out of Britain over the past 13 years, but have failed to leave.

A Home Office spokeswoman said: "The prime minister was highlighting progress that we expect to make as a result of the measures in the Nationality Immigration and Asylum Act.

"We have said all along that once the Act starts to kick in then we would expect to see reductions and those would be measured and assessed.

"The prime minister said the halving of the applications was a longer term objective for years to come.

"It is an indicator of progress rather than a target as such."

Scepticism

Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith had said Mr Blair would not be able to meet his promise unless he set "certain quotas".

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

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

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," she said.


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

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10 Feb 03 | Politics
07 Feb 03 | Politics
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05 Feb 03 | Politics
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