Tony Blair's pledge to halve the number of asylum claims in a year has been achieved, according to latest figures.
Tougher but fairer system, say ministers
His pledge was made last October, after a record 8,770 people claimed asylum in just one month.
In September 2003 there were 4,225 applications - meaning the target was met - while asylum claims for the last quarter fell to under 12,000.
However, political opponents have said the figures mean little and should be treated with scepticism.
And refugee groups have said by focusing on numbers the government is neglecting to tackle the main root cause - human rights abuses abroad.
But the government has welcomed the news, which came as ministers outlined details of the latest Asylum Bill.
It is aimed at reducing numbers still further by deterring people from making fraudulent claims, and includes a provision to electronically tag asylum seekers whose applications have failed, rather than placing them in detention centres.
According to the figures, asylum applications in September fell 52% on the previous year.
Applications rose 13% to 11,955 in the three months from July to September -
but were down from 22,030 year-on-year.
The largest nationalities applying were from Somalia, China and Iran - countries with well-recorded records of human rights abuses or other conflict.
Some 5% of applicants were given refugee status and 7% another form of protection.
But appeals have continued to rise. A fifth of applicants in the last three months - 4,270 people, were found to have a valid case despite being first rejected.
Critics of the government warn poor decision making will increase if Home Secretary David Blunkett goes through with a plan to cut legal aid and restrict appeals.
MOST APPLICANTS BY NATIONALITY
Q3 2003 Source: Home Office
Ministers say a number of factors have contributed to the fall in asylum claimants since Mr Blair's pledge, including the closure of the controversial refugee camp at Sangatte in France.
"The measures the government has put in place over the last few years are bringing about a sustained improvement of the immigration and asylum system," Mr Blunkett said.
"The number of applications has halved and is now consistently far below the levels of last year."
But Anna Resienberger, of the Refugee Council, told BBC News:
"We don't really think that the figures are the real issue.
"The majority of the people still come from countries where there are human rights abuses.
WHO ARE ASYLUM SEEKERS?
Key facts about the people coming to the UK
"We would like to see the government paying more attention to the situations in those countries and that's the way the figures will change as people won't need to flee for their lives."
Sandy Buchan, chief executive of Refugee Action, said the figures showed
needed to reconsider its proposed new asylum bill.
"It is time to allow the system to settle down and work effectively, instead of burdening it with ever harsher legislation that is inhumane, ineffective and unlikely to result in savings to the taxpayer."
She warned that reform should not be achieved at the cost of depriving asylum seekers of justice.
Mr Blunkett's Conservative opposite number, David Davis, welcomed the "apparent" fall in asylum seekers.
But he questioned whether it was down to the "vast increase" in the number of work permits, or the government "turning a blind eye to illegal immigrants".
The shadow home secretary went on: "Considering the home secretary's own admission that he 'does not have a clue' how many illegal immigrants there are in Britain, we remain highly sceptical about the government's claims."
Mark Oaten, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said a general drop in immigration across Europe had to be taken into account.
But the "real question" was how many people were still coming into the UK to work illegally without claiming asylum, he said.
Both parties also rounded on Mr Blunkett's plan to take the children of failed asylum seekers into care if the family refused to take a return flight home.
Conservative shadow international development secretary John Bercow branded the plan "crypto-fascist" and the Liberal Democrats have objected to what they say is a "tool" simply to reduce asylum seeker numbers.
But Mr Blunkett said taking children into care would be a last resort and he was not in politics to be the "King Herod of the Labour Party".
He said the measure was in fact aimed at preventing hardship: "If the family refuses to go and they have not got benefits and therefore the children are at risk of destitution, is it better to actually take them into care or allow them to be destitute?"