The number of asylum seekers coming to the UK has continued to fall, according to the latest government figures.
Asylum applicants: 60% down on 2002
Some 34,000 sought asylum in the UK in 2004 compared with 49,000 in 2003.
The figure represents a 60% fall in asylum applications since a high of 84,130 cases in 2002 - a record 7,000 arrivals a month.
Meanwhile, refugee agencies appealed for calm over the way politicians discuss asylum and immigration ahead of the expected general election.
Figures for the fourth quarter of 2004 show that the number of applicants, excluding dependents, fell by 2% in the three months to December.
Separate figures from the UN's refugee agency are expected to show this is in line with continued falls in asylum arrivals across Europe.
Ministers insist however that the scale of the drop over the past two years is a result of efforts to clamp down on unfounded applications and improve border security.
In 2004, the top three nationalities seeking asylum were Iranian, Chinese and Iraqi people.
Of the cases considered during the quarter, some 4% were given refugee status and a further 12% were allowed a lesser form of protection in the UK.
Although 88% of all cases were initially rejected in 2004, separate figures show about a fifth are won on appeal, rising to higher numbers among some nationalities.
Almost 12,430 failed asylum applicants were removed during 2004, 4% fewer than in 2003.
The Home Office says some of this fall is due to eastern European nations joining the European Union last May, meaning their people could legally seek work in the UK.
Separate Home Office figures show that 130,000 EU citizens from eastern Europe have registered to work in the UK, with four out of 10 of these thought to have been here already.
Immigration minister Des Browne said the government stood by its commitment to ensure removals of failed asylum applicants exceeded new arrivals by the end of 2005.
TOP ARRIVING NATIONALITIES
DR Congo: 425
Source: Home Office
"We now remove around 50% of failed asylum seekers compared to 20% in 1996 - but we are determined to do more," he said.
"We have already introduced a new offence of deliberately destroying or discarding travel documents in an attempt to frustrate removal and to date 208 people have been charged, with 107 convicted so far.
"Increasing removals is a key part of our five year immigration and asylum plan, in particular working with source countries to secure more returns."
Appeals for calm
But refugee agencies say more needs to be done to improve the quality of decisions, saying too many people are being found to have an unfounded claim, only to later win on appeal.
A coalition led by the Refugee Council is launching its own campaign to coincide with the figures, urging politicians to "tell it like it is".
Maeve Sherlock, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said politicians needed to campaign in a calm and sensitive way and not encourage scare stories.
"Asylum will clearly be a key issue throughout the general election campaign, but it is only fair that this debate is conducted responsibly," she said.
"The debate over asylum should focus on improving the system to ensure that the UK remains a safe haven for people fleeing persecution. "All we are asking people to do when campaigning on this issue during the election is to get their facts right."
'Stuggling to control'
But shadow home secretary David Davis said: "The latest figures show that Mr Blair is still struggling to get control of the shambles that his Government created.
"Despite Mr Blair's promises, 250,000 failed asylum seekers remain in Britain and the rate of removals is below the rate of new applications.
"Only the Conservatives are committed to a quota system to limit the numbers of people that come to Britain."
Habib Rahmen, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said the sharp drop exposed the "wild claims" of some politicians.
"Having said that, we should not necessarily celebrate a low number of claims," he said. "The drop in the figures may just reflect the fact that the process of claiming asylum is now more difficult."