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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 February, 2005, 17:01 GMT
Analysis: Asylum removals on the rise
By Dominic Casciani
BBC news community affairs

The number of asylum seekers coming to the UK has continued to fall, according to the latest government figures. But what does it tell us about what's going on?

Has the government taken control of asylum?

Applications are still going down and the removals trend remains up.

But a closer look at what is going on in the asylum system reveals that many challenges remain. And that's why, with the ballot box a matter of months away, asylum and immigration will remain a hugely contentious issue as the Conservatives insist the government has failed to get a grip.

In terms of absolute numbers, the figures represent a massive fall since the record high of October 2002.

The UK is now joint eighth on a European league table for arrivals - one new asylum seeker is arriving for every 1,000 of the population.

What hasn't really changed is the type of country where people come from. The top five nationals seeking asylum in the UK - Iran, China, Iraq, Somalia and Zimbabwe - are all nations with well-documented human rights abuses and persecution.

But nevertheless, ministers believe the system is now more efficient - and point to the speediness of initial decisions. Some 20,000 more people received their initial decisions in 2004 than arrived to put in new applications.

Removals targets

Today, with the number of actual cases dropping - as they are throughout many parts of the industrialised world - the government is staking its reputation on removals of failed applicants.

Applications: 33,930
Accepted: 12%
Rejections: 88%
A fifth of rejections are overturned on appeal
Removals: 12,430
Total asylum seekers on benefits: 61,625
Note: Asylum seekers are banned from working
Source: Home Office

Ministers have pledged to that monthly removals of failed applicants will exceed the rate of unfounded applications by the end of 2005.

This could be achievable - but also could be very challenging: A sudden crisis somewhere in the world, or an unexpected jump in arrivals from a particular country, could skew the figures upwards.

Secondly, because of the way the government puts its figures together, it's pretty difficult to know for sure how many people are finally rejected in any one month - not least because cases can drag on literally to the steps of a plane home.

Ministers have sanctioned more use of detention facilities (making it easier to subsequently deport) and have opened new centres to ensure these targets are met. But it may take as little as one unpredicted world emergency to prompt an unexpected increase in asylum seekers.

The unanswered question, however, is whether there has been a cost to this efficiency. Some 55,000 asylum seekers who were rejected in 2004 appealed. About 20% of cases are being won on appeal.

Among some nationalities - notably the Eritreans, Somalis and Sudanese - about 40% win on appeal.

This can be read two ways: it either means that the checks and balances are working well or there are too many poor decisions in the first place.

Many of these cases take a long time to complete, creating additional uncertainty in the system and perpetuating its costs. At present some 60,000 asylum seekers are receiving some form of benefits because they have neither had a final rejection nor a final acceptance as genuine, although that figure is 20,000 down on 2003.

New policies

All of that said, a range of policy measures are now coming into force that Labour says will help its ministers meet those removal targets and further abuse.

Annual limit on immigration
Quotas for refugees
Off-shore processing for asylum seekers
Drop international refugee agreement
More port security

Most of these have been opposed by refugee groups, supported by academics, lawyers and other experts, who believe they contribute to a national image of asylum seekers as a threat to society.

Ministers have this week signed an order which means failed asylum seekers who are resisting removal, but cannot be automatically deported, will work without pay on community projects.

The courts may also soon see the first cases where families resisting removal will have their benefits removed, meaning the courts will have to decide whether or not to place their children in care.

This was one of the most controversial elements of the 2004 Asylum and Immigration Act and is likely to face a fierce legal battle in the months to come.

The restructuring of the appeals system, designed to reduce the opportunities to challenge a rejection, is also expected before the summer.

Finally, the Home Office is expected to trial an extremely controversial plan to send under-18s back to their home countries, even if they have no family to go to. The experiment will start with teenagers who have arrived from Albania.

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