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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 July, 2003, 10:10 GMT 11:10 UK
Six Forum: Ask Beverley Hughes about asylum
Home Office minister for asylum and immigration, Beverley Hughes, answered your questions in a special edition of the Six Forum, presented by Manisha Tank.

Are headlines such as "Act now against asylum" and "Britain is a soft touch" giving the wrong impression about asylum seekers?

Last year a record 110,700 people claimed asylum in the UK.

One suggestion is economic migrants target the UK because they know they will not be immediately deported and will be able to live off benefits.

But while one 2002 poll suggested people think the UK takes a quarter of the world's refugees, the reality during that year was approximately 2%.

The government has pledged to halve the number of asylum claims by September, and in May Tony Blair announced that applications had dropped by more than 45% since last year.

What are the real facts about Asylum? Are the government's policies working? Is Britain a 'soft touch'?


Manisha Tank:

Hello and welcome to the Six forum special, part of the BBC's Asylum Day. Headlines in the press paint a grim picture of asylum seekers suggesting citizens should act now against the process and claim Britain is a soft touch. Last year a record number of people claimed asylum in the UK and this year the Government's pledged to halve the number of asylum claims by September.

We've had hundreds of text messages and e-mails already and here to answer them is Home Office Minister for Asylum and Immigration, Beverley Hughes, who is in the BBC's Manchester studio.

Beverley, thanks very much for joining us. We'll begin with government policy. Seamus Dunne, London asks: Why is it that this Government, and successive governments have constantly let us down with its inability to operate a tough, efficient deportation strategy?

But this really is all about what line does the Government take because we've had completely contrary e-mails as well, this one from Chernor Jalloh, Almeira, Spain who asks: Why is it that the British Government is so heavy handed on asylum seekers?

So what line does the Government take?

Beverley Hughes:

Well it's very important to us that we sort out the asylum system and separate that completely from economic migration which we want to encourage for this country. We want to open up legal routes for people to come and work here and make a contribution but in an open and regulated way.

But the fact is that the asylum system has been misused by very large numbers of people who want to come here to work but who are not actually refugees in the terms of the Geneva Convention. It's absolutely critical that we separate those two things out, that we sort out the asylum system and that we have a mechanism through that system which is assessing people fairly but quickly and if at the end of the process they are not granted asylum, then removing them.

Manisha Tank:

Let's go on then, you said that was a fact - let's go on to the facts and the figures. Albert, UK asks: What fraction of asylum seekers actually require political asylum?

Beverley Hughes:

Well generally speaking, over the last few years, about 10% of people are granted asylum at the first decision stage. Another maybe 15% - 20% might be given some form of humanitarian protection. They're not refugees but the situation in their countries is such that they're given a temporary protection for humanitarian reasons. And then some of the people initially refused will of course be given asylum on appeal. So all in all, though you're talking about no more than 25% perhaps will be given either refugee status or some form of humanitarian protection on a temporary basis and the rest will be refused.

Manisha Tank:

Lee Stott, Burnley asks: Could you tell me in plain English why asylum seekers pass through as many as three European countries to get to Britain?

And this is something that obviously the press have picked up on quite heavily. Why are these asylum seekers coming though Europe but they keep going until they get to Britain? Why target Britain?

Beverley Hughes:

Well I think Britain is very attractive place to people and in fact for some very good reasons that we'd be proud of. We do have a reputation of being a tolerant country. We've got a multiethnic, multicultural society and English is the universal language. But those callers are quite right to say that people, if they really believe they're fleeing persecution, they should claim in the first country they come to. And in fact we've been very strong on enforcing the agreement between European countries that's called the Dublin Convention, which means that people who claim asylum in one country, having passed through another country, can be returned to that first country.

We've also instituted, with other European countries, an international fingerprint system now that went live in January. So if somebody gets to the UK and claims asylum, we check everybody's fingerprints now and have done for some time. But now we're developing a European database of fingerprints so we check if those people have claimed elsewhere and if they have, then we will return them to those European countries. We have been criticised for that but I think it's very important that we do stick to the rules on claiming on the first country you come to because that's what you'd expect a refugee to do, wouldn't you? If somebody is fleeing persecution, you'd expect them to claim in the first safe country. It's very important we enforce that.

Manisha Tank:

And that's certainly been the view of a number of members of the public who've written into us. Here's one from two people, the same question. Steve, UK and Patrick McKeown, Rhyl ask: What is the maximum number of new adults that this country should, in your view, be prepared to accept every year?

Beverley Hughes:

Well I'm not sure if Patrick and the other caller were referring there to asylum seekers or for people coming in legally through one of our economic routes to work.

In relation to asylum seekers, I don't think that a quota system is actually workable. What you need is what we're trying to get to and what we're working towards which is a fast efficient system that can identify accurately those people who really are fleeing persecution because we'd want to protect those people wouldn't we? We'd want to offer them a safe haven. But equally to deal quickly and promptly with those people who we don't think are refugees and remove them from the country.

Manisha Tank:

On now to the question of integration. What happens to asylum seekers once they get here, once they get through the process? Sarah Keating, London asks: What are your views on integration? How do you define 'integration' and how do you then achieve it?

Beverley Hughes:

Well I think this is a very important issue that Sarah's raised and in the legislation that we bought into being towards the end of last year, whilst it was focused also on sorting out asylum, it had a great deal to say about changes in the way in which we confer nationality and citizenship -requiring people to be able to speak the language, the know something about this country - and that when people have been here for a while, having got status and become citizens. It's important also that we start before then and we want to make language tuition available to people.

We're also changing the immigration and nationality department, sending many more of our staff now to work in the regions, in close conjunction with local authorities, to make sure that the issues that can sometimes arise in communities as a result of people not integrating properly can be dealt with. And as far as those issues are connected to asylum or immigration, that we've got our staff there working with local authorities, health authorities and with the police, making sure that we can help communities to really work together as far as we can.

Manisha Tank:

I'm very aware that the Government is concerned about the projection of the asylum issue and the projection of government policy in the media. A very interesting text message that we've just had in from John in Rotherham who asks: what attempts are being made to educate young people about asylum seekers?

The question here being there's a great onus on the Government to put out the education on this subject.

Beverley Hughes:

I think that's true and in fact through the work that we're doing on integration, we are trying to do that. We have integration forum that consists of the major voluntary organisations, local authorities and other agencies, working together both nationally with me in the forum, but also locally, to make sure that that education process, along with other practical means of integrating people, is taking place.

We've got a particular team, for example, working on positive images, talking to the local media, talking to people in schools and in communities and putting the human side, if you like, of the refugee story across, countering some of the negative publicity, if you like, that people can see elsewhere.

It is a very important issue, it's hard sometimes to get that right because there is often a barrage of other kinds of coverage and we need to address that as far as we can in relation to refugees.

Manisha Tank:

So staying with the issue of the press, Lauren Dobson, Manchester asks: Do you feel that British asylum policy panders to the right wing press?

I suppose this might be about, on a local basis, there have been members of the public who've been concerned about asylum seekers perhaps taking away their rights to local housing. So there are all sorts of issues around this.

Beverley Hughes:

Well I know a Lauren Dobson in Manchester. In fact I have a niece called Lauren Dobson in Manchester - I don't know if it's my niece that's sent you that message but it's an important question.

On the one hand we have the parts of the press and other organisation - not just the press - stereotyping asylum seekers as negative, as scroungers. On the other hand we're also bombarded by organisations saying that we're too tough on asylum seekers. And in fact neither of those stereotypes is right. We have to get a balanced policy.

What we're trying to do is to say very clearly, this Government is not anti-immigration. In fact, in contrast to almost every previous government, we're saying very clearly, we want people to come here - the UK economy needs people to come and work here - we're proud of our multicultural background and heritage and our international obligations. But people have to come here legally, openly, in a managed way and not using the asylum system of a backdoor into coming in illegally if you're not a refugee. That doesn't help people who really are fleeing persecution because it's very, very hard then to identify those people amidst a very, very large number of people who are coming in illegally, claiming asylum but actually want to work here - they're not fleeing persecution. It's very important we separate out those two systems.

Manisha Tank:

We know that the processing systems are somewhat hampered by the practicalities of the issue. Karen asks: I helped with asylum seekers and I found the legal system to be protracted, unclear and extremely difficult for say a youngster, under the age 18 from another country, to understand. How can this be improved?

Beverley Hughes:

Well in relation to unaccompanied young people - people under 18 - their immigration cases are dealt with under the Children Act in Britain and they're under the care of social services in one form or another and obviously the social services will help them through that process.

Manisha Tank:

Karen was pointing out that it can be difficult for a youngster under the age of 18, from a different country, probably speaking a different language - it's very difficult for them.

Beverley Hughes:

Yes, a youngster would get assistance with that because they are treated first and foremost as a child under the Children Act in Britain. As for other people, Karen's quite right, that the process in the past was confusing, it was very long and drawn out. That was made much worse by the very large numbers of people who came in, particularly as a result of the Kosovo crisis and it was a system that couldn't cope with all of that.

We've now recovered from that very substantially as a result of the changes the Government have made and particularly the most recent legislation. About 80% of cases now have their first decision in two months and we're aiming, if they go to an appeal stage, for that to be completed in four months. That is very important that people have clarity, they have certainty and they're not hanging around in the system for a very long time.

Manisha Tank:

Now just going back to some of the fallout from the asylum process. This is the view of Terry Samson in Oxford who asks: Why have you completely ignored the opinions of local people and those organisations who deal with asylum seekers in setting up the so-called accommodation centres in rural locations?

Beverley Hughes:

We do want to try accommodation centres and that's why we legislated to give the Government the power to open a small number - perhaps four accommodation centres, to pilot how effective they are. The idea behind accommodation centres is that although people wouldn't be formally detained, like in a detention centre, it would be a semi-secure environment. It would mean that we could provide all the necessary parts of the process on the site - the decision-making, the legal advice, the appeals process. So that we really can truncate the system but nevertheless have good quality decision-making and a fair process. And those people therefore who were given refugee status could be identified very quickly and helped to integrate into the community. Those people who weren't given refugee status would be there nonetheless a short time and we could remove them back to their home country once they came to the end of the process.

So it is important to trial those accommodation centres. There are asylum seekers now in many parts of the country- here in Manchester where I am at the moment, in most of the big cities - in London. And it seems to be right that people want us to address this problem rightly, that is one way in which we feel we need to test a new way of dealing with asylum seekers and processing them quickly and therefore they have to go somewhere and that's why we've made applications for two sites at the moment and that's going through the planning process. And it's in the planning process of course that local people's views on that can be heard.

Manisha Tank:

A final question now. This is for you personally to get your view on this. Robert Crosby, Nottingham asks: The Government's opponents seem quick to make sweeping claims that "Britain is a soft touch", yet they complain when new rural asylum system is proposed to try to tackle the issue. How frustrating do you find that?

Beverley Hughes:

Well this is a very emotive issue. It's a complex issue. It's one in which we have to have a policy that really sorts out asylum and I make no apology for that. But on the other hand, I am always very mindful that even if you're talking about people who are claiming asylum when they're not really refugees, they are people who want a better life, they're human beings, they're individuals, they're families and we have to constantly keep that to the forefront of our mind.

So Robert's right in a way, I don't find it frustrating. I understand that its an issue that gets people's emotions going and its one that we have to work hard at all the time, trying to get a balanced approach in which we can manage migration as a whole but we actually make sure that the asylum system is working for refugees primarily and in the interest of cohesion and security in the country too.

Manisha Tank:

Well we have to wrap it up there for now. Beverley Hughes, Home Office Minister for Immigration, thank you so much for joining us.

That's it for the Six Forum special, part of the BBC's Asylum Day. Goodbye.


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