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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 March 2006, 13:33 GMT
Q&A: Asylum removals
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News community affairs

Immigration officer
The MPs want more failed asylum seekers deported
A committee of MPs has said failed asylum seekers are not being removed "anywhere near fast enough". BBC News explains the background.

What does the report say?

MPs on the Public Accounts Committee say the UK's asylum policy has been undermined because the authorities are not removing applicants who have been found to have no grounds to seek refuge.

The MPs say the Home Office's immigration department cannot give a reliable figure for how many failed asylum seekers are in the UK, although estimates suggest between 150,000 and 283,000.

At current rates, says the report, it will take at least a decade to deport all those who currently have no right to stay.

What does the Home Office say?

It has come out fighting, with Immigration Minister Tony McNulty saying this is by no means the real story. He says the figures in the report are two years out of date, and don't reflect the massive increase in removals seen in the past year.

Mr McNulty says the government is already doing, or "seriously considering", many of the MPs' recommendations.

Crucially, he argues that the removal system has hit the "tipping point", a target imposed by Prime Minister Tony Blair to ensure that monthly removals exceed the rate of new unfounded cases. Removal of failed asylum seekers hasn't happened as smoothly as it should, the minister admits, but he says the situation is rapidly improving.

Is the system in chaos?

Without a doubt there has been chaos in the asylum system, driven by an administrative crisis in how to deal with the massive rise in numbers that began in the 1990s.

Whether this was down to political mismanagement, official incompetence or factors beyond anyone's control depends to some degree on your political views.

However, numbers have now fallen back dramatically to their lowest level for a decade, while removals have stepped up a gear.

At the same time, Mr McNulty argues that for too long, ministers of all political persuasions did not offer political leadership on immigration, which has contributed to the problems.

But does the UK have an effective removal system?

The Home Office says it does, although the MPs' report suggests that part of the problem is that failed asylum seekers' applications, support and removal are dealt with separately, rather than together.

The current removal system has two prongs: voluntary and forced. Voluntary removal depends on failed asylum seekers taking up offers to go home. Since January, the Home Office has offered up to 3,000 of cash and benefits to individuals leaving the UK.

By contrast, forced removal costs about 11,000 per person. It involves detention and, in many cases, expensive legal battles. Critically, detention does not automatically lead to removal.

Is the system changing?

Yes. Under the new system, piloted in Liverpool, a single case worker is responsible for an asylum seeker's application, from day one through to acceptance and settlement or rejection and removal.

The aim is to make the system much faster, rather than leaving people waiting around for months if not years for a final decision while the case passes from pillar to post.

The government has run a "fast-track" system at the Harmondsworth removal centre for some time. This deals with asylum applicants judged at the earliest of stages not to have a well-founded case for refugee status.

While asylum support groups have raised significant concerns about the fairness of fast-track, the new national system aims to pick up speed in a similar way by categorising applicants at an early stage.

What do asylum groups say?

The Refugee Council argues that "crackdowns" make good headlines but hopeless policy. It wants to see the Home Office shift investment from locking people up to improving decision-making. Up to a fifth of rejected applicants win on appeal, it says, something which builds delays and uncertainty into the system.

Many judges and lawyers have also felt frustration with the system, although often for very different reasons.

What kind of things have they said?

Mr Justice Hodge of the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal recently told MPs that immigration case officers needed extra training. He added he was surprised that when a judge overturned a decision, immigration officers were not sent the ruling so that they could learn from their mistakes.

Mr Justice Collins, a High Court judge who specialises in immigration law, has publicly criticised the asylum system. In a recent judgment, he said he "deplored" the Home Office's removal strategy. He suggested that where case workers delayed decisions, and then later rushed to remove, the courts became mired in unnecessary legal challenges, building in more delays such as orders preventing deportation. All of which, he said, was a waste of time and public money.

Methods being considered to cut the backlog

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