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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 September 2004, 12:59 GMT 13:59 UK
Blair sets asylum removal target
An immigration officer searches a car
Tony Blair wants to see more failed asylum seekers removed
A new target for removing failed asylum seekers from the UK has been set by Prime Minister Tony Blair.

He said there were "genuine concerns" about the asylum system and the government must do more.

The prime minister's target states that by the end of 2005, the monthly rate of removals must exceed the number of applicants whose claims are unfounded.

Refugee campaigners say genuine asylum seekers are being denied a fair hearing of their cases.

Writing in The Times newspaper, Mr Blair said: "I accept we need to do a great deal more.

1998: 6,990
1999: 7,665
2000: 8,980
2001: 9,285
2002: 10,740
2003: 13,005
Source: Home Office
"It can make a mockery of our asylum system if those properly denied the right to stay simply flout this decision and remain.

"It is unfair to those who play by the rules and sends the wrong message to those who may try to come to this country without genuine cause.

"It undermines public faith in the system."

Last year Home Secretary David Blunkett abandoned a target of deporting 30,000 failed asylum applicants a year, though numbers removed did increase to 13,000.

Since then, the gap between the numbers removed and the number of new arrivals has closed as asylum rates have dropped across Europe.

Detention expanded

The government is also expanding its use of detention, with 1,000 more places at removal centres to be rolled out. The decision comes despite campaigns against removal centres after a string of critical official reports, suicides and violence at removal centres.

1998: 9%
1999: 27%
2000: 17%
2001: 19%
2002: 22%
2003: 20%
Source: Home Office
Mr Blair said increased use of detention would ensure more of those told to leave, actually do so. At present, about 1,000 are removed each month.

One of the main removal centres, Harmondsworth, near Heathrow Airport, remains closed after a major disturbance in July.

But refugee agencies have attacked the focus on removals, saying the government needs first to get its decisions right.

There has been a steady rise in the number of cases being won on initial appeal - amounting to approximately 20% of all rejections each year.

Maeve Sherlock, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said ministers were treating asylum seekers like criminals, contributing to public misunderstanding of refugees.

"If people are going to be removed at the end of the asylum process it is only right that they get a fair hearing in the first place.

"Restricted access to legal advice, poor initial decisions, an inadequate appeals system, and rushing claims through without giving asylum seekers adequate opportunity to present their case, are all contributing to a much increased risk that people will be wrongly returned to face torture or even death."

New offences

From next week it will be a criminal offence to deliberately destroy travel documents in an attempt to stay in the UK.

Failing to co-operate with re-documentation during the removal process will also carry up to two years' imprisonment.

While the majority of asylum seekers have no documents on arrival, the government accepts many are ordered to destroy their papers by people-smuggling operations which transport people into Europe.

'Wild promises'

Shadow home secretary David Davis said: "We have been here before. How many other wild promises will the Prime Minister make on asylum ahead of an election - only to abandon them afterwards?

"Since 1997 over a quarter of a million failed asylum applicants continue to remain in Britain. In his 2001 General Election manifesto the Prime Minister promised to remove 30,000 failed asylum seekers in a year.

"In September 2002 David Blunkett admitted the Government had abandoned this target."

And asylum critic Sir Andrew Green, chairman of Migrationwatch UK, said: "At last the Government have acknowledged the scandal that a system that costs 2 billion a year results in only one in five failed asylum seekers being removed.

"Despite this, the Prime Ministers new target is likely to be lower than that promised in the 2001 manifesto."

But Habib Rahman of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants said he feared genuine asylum seekers could be wrongly returned to dangerous situations in their countries of origin.

He said: "We are increasingly concerned at the bias in government statements on abuses of the asylum system.

"The current emphasis on abuse is misleading and effectively demonises people who look to us for help because they are in danger and share our democratic values."

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