Philip Johnston, news.telegraph.co.uk, Feb. 25
The number of people claiming asylum in Britain fell by more than 40 per cent last year, the Home Office said yesterday.
In 2003, 61,000 applications for political refugee status were made, compared with the record number of 104,000 in 2002.
The reduction fell short of Tony Blair’s promise to halve applications last year. But while the total remained the highest in Europe, the decline was greater than anywhere else in the European Union.
The fall is put down to the closure of the Sangatte Red Cross camp in France and restrictions on benefits for claimants who do not apply on arrival at ports.
David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, said “very significant progress” had been made to reduce the number of asylum seekers.
“In the last three months of 2003, applications for support were down 60 per cent compared with this time last year,” he said. “This will soon begin to bring down the costs of asylum support.”
For the third quarter running Somali nationals submitted the highest number of applications, with 1,245 new claims in the final three months of 2003. The Government said earlier this week it would target Somalis at ports to try to reduce their numbers.
The next highest group claiming asylum were Iraqis followed by Chinese, Zimbabweans and Iranians. Applications from Turkish nationals rose fastest during 2003.
The additional efforts to cut the number of arrivals pushed up the costs of dealing with asylum and immigration applications to £2 billion this year, up by £200 million.
The budget includes support for around 80,000 asylum seekers whose cases are still being considered. Mr Blunkett said costs would fall as the number of applicants fell further.
The extra costs have been incurred to recruit more staff, introduce tighter border controls and provide more detention places to speed up removals. However, the latest figures showed that the number of failed asylum seekers removed from the country fell in the last six months of 2003.
Six per cent of applicants were granted asylum last year, 11 per cent were given leave to remain and 83 per cent were refused on a first assessment. On appeal, however, a further 20 per cent of claimants — about 16,000 people — were allowed to stay.
Legislation now before Parliament is intended to streamline the legal procedures and reduce the opportunities for appeal.
Kate Allen, the director of Amnesty International, the human rights group, said the number of successful appeals indicated that the Government was wrong to restrict them.
“A staggering number of wrong asylum decisions are overturned on appeal,” she added. “The Home Office continues to focus on getting numbers down, when it should concentrate on getting decisions right.
“When more than 16,000 wrong asylum decisions are overturned in the space of one year, it is essential that we have a robust appeals procedure to ensure that people are not wrongly returned into the hands of their persecutors.”
Maeve Sherlock, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: “The world is not 40 per cent safer than it was a year ago and there is real evidence that people fleeing persecution are unable to get sanctuary in Britain.”