Select Committee on Home Affairs First Report


8.  It is estimated that there are 30 million displaced people in the world.[11] There is no easy distinction between those who are fleeing persecution in their own countries - who can be classified as refugees seeking asylum - and those who are looking for better economic conditions. The UK has experienced a dramatic increase in the number of people seeking entry and applying for asylum. This has been accompanied by a marked rise in the number of illegal entrants detected. We were told by the Refugee Council that EU countries, with 6.2% of the world's population, take 4% of the world's refugees.[12] Among EU countries, the UK ranks second after Germany for total number of entrants but only ninth for the number of entrants in proportion to the population. Nevertheless there has been an increase in asylum applications in the UK from 26,210 in 1990 to 76,040 in 2000. There are a number of elements in assessing the demand for asylum and illegal entry:

  • Factors which draw people to the UK ('pull' factors)

  • Immigration policy

  • Organised crime

  • EU enlargement

Refugee: someone who has left their country and has a well-founded fear of persecution on grounds of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group

Asylum-seeker: someone who has actually applied (under the laws and procedures of a particular country) to be treated as a refugee UNHCR


9.  We were shocked to see hundreds of people - mainly young and from many different countries - milling around at the Red Cross centre at Sangatte near Calais in basic but safe conditions in France and waiting for an opportunity to make a hazardous and illegal crossing of the Channel to seek asylum in the UK. Many of them told us they were economic migrants who had travelled huge distances at great expense and were simply waiting to get into the UK. We have subsequently learnt that the number housed there has increased. We find this situation most disturbing on three grounds: the conditions in which they are living at Sangattte, the fact that they are just waiting to enter the UK illegally and their lack of any legal status in France.

10.  We have not taken evidence on the factors which make people want to leave their countries and move elsewhere: poverty, warfare and economic disparities between regions - the 'push' factors. In general, people leave their country for another country to flee persecution, find work or join their family. There are also key 'pull' factors which attract people to particular countries. People who have left their own country are attracted to different countries for different reasons. Some of these factors may be more perceived than real. The factors which may make the UK more attractive than other countries appear to be:

  • English language

  • job prospects

  • availability and perception of social security benefits

  • more generous interpretation of asylum law

  • slow decision-making on asylum-cases

  • lack of an efficient removal system for people refused asylum

  • access to public services such as free health, education and housing

  • scope for living in the country without documentation

  • general economic prosperity.

11.  The attractiveness of the English language and family links are not matters which can be much influenced by public policy. Some of those seeking to come to the UK are attracted by long-established family, cultural and historical links, such as with the Indian sub-continent. More recent migration has established small communities from other countries which now themselves attract people to the UK.

12.  Job prospects depend both on economic prosperity and easy access to the labour market. There may be conflicting policy interests here, with the domestic labour force not necessarily able to meet all the skills needs or provide workers for low paid unskilled jobs.

13.  The availability and scale of social security benefits and access to other public services is something which can be regulated by the state, but perceptions may be more important in attracting people than the reality. People both within and outside the UK seem to have exaggerated impressions of the generosity of the UK's social security benefits for asylum seekers. A MORI survey for Readers' Digest in October 2000 showed people in the UK thought asylum seekers receive £113 a week in benefit payments - about three times the actual figure of £36 in cash and vouchers for a person aged 25 or more (plus the cost of accommodation).[13] At the same time a recent televison programme showed Romanians who had been told that asylum seekers were given £800 a month in the UK.

"The [Parliamentary] Assembly [of the Council of Europe] is convinced that, besides stepping up security measures and control mechanisms at the European borders to apprehend clandestine immigrants, member states should increase their cooperation to effectively combat human trafficking, and do their utmost to find ways to stop this modern slavery on their territory. They should also take more seriously the root causes of clandestine migration and cooperate more with the countries of origin of clandestine immigrants". [Draft] Recommendation on Clandestine immigration and the fight against traffickers following the deaths at Dover on 19 June 2000 Doc 8782

14.  It is probable that the UK's interpretation of international law and the delay in reaching asylum decisions in recent years have also made the UK an attractive destination. A slow decision-making process means a long period in the UK drawing benefits or working - irrespective of the outcome of the asylum application. A more liberal interpretation of international law makes it more likely that the application will be granted in the UK than in some other EU countries. Equally, UK immigration law for non-asylum cases is different from that of other countries. We deal in paragraphs 136 to 138 below with the differences between the UK and other EU countries in interpreting international law.

15.  Unlike some other countries, the UK does not require people living here to carry an identity card or produce evidence of nationality when using public services. This may make it easier to live in the UK without any documentation. In France such documentation is required but people do live without it - "sans papiers". Asylum seekers with a provisional residence permit have access to the French national health system. In Germany asylum seekers only have access to medical treatment in cases of serious illness or acute pain. Italy provides free healthcare to asylum-seekers. School attendance is compulsory for asylum seekers' children in France and Italy; but access to schools in France requires only proof of residence; in Germany education is provided by most of the regional (Länder) governments.

16.  Some European countries, such as Hungary and, to a certain extent, Italy, are clearly transit countries through which asylum seekers and economic migrants pass; others, like Spain, appear to be the end destination of most clandestine entrants from North Africa who hope to work there. By reason of its position, the UK is at the end of the line for those travelling overland through Europe. Those who enter other EU countries on the continent of Europe do not encounter any internal borders until they reach the English Channel or North Sea - they are within the area known as the Schengen Convention (after the village at which the EU agreement was made). No other country has the means of border control or any incentive to check the flow of those who see the UK as their final destination. The pattern of past migration and the lack of internal borders must create a dynamic which leads people to the Red Cross warehouse at Sangatte near Calais where traffickers will prey on them.

17.  In this context it is easier to maintain border controls at sea ports than across land borders. While the UK's borders are almost exclusively sea ones (except with the Republic of Ireland), some other EU states also have to maintain extensive sea borders. Spain and Italy have long coast lines (as well as land borders with other EU countries in the Schengen area) but, unlike the UK, the countries across the sea from them are not EU member states. From what we learnt on our visits the UK can benefit from how Schengen countries handle these issues. We also describe in paragraphs 110 to 124 below the equipment being used for border controls in other countries.

18.  It is not easy to measure the relative effect of each different 'pull' factor. There appears to have been no detailed research on this. Even those which can be affected by policy decisions within the UK cannot be changed in a short time. Whatever the strength of those pull factors, the Home Secretary told us :

    "The principal driver of asylum applicants, unfounded as well as well-founded applicants, is political instability elsewhere, as well as rising poverty".[14]

19.  A large number of those applying for asylum are genuinely seeking refuge from persecution in their own country; others want to live in the UK for compelling economic reasons or simply want to improve their lot. Whatever their motivation, many asylum-seekers take great risks to reach the UK and arrive in a state of desperation. We see no prospect that pressures which lead people to come to the UK and other developed countries will ease. Recent figures for asylum applications are shown in charts C and D (after paragraph 22). The Government should examine the 'pull' factors (set out in paragraph 10 above) to see which ones they can legitimately influence.

20.  The UK is not alone amongst European countries in experiencing a growing hostility towards those claiming refuge from persecution in their own countries. In this climate, there is a danger of dismissing all claims of asylum as bogus, and concluding they are being used as a cover solely by those seeking employment or wanting to take advantage of Britain's welfare system.

21.  For so long as there are tyrannical regimes and civil wars there will be those who have every understandable reason to try to escape to a safe country, often putting their lives and those of their families at real risk. It is for the Home Office to decide whether claimants for asylum meet the criteria set out in the 1951 UN Convention in a reasonable time. Avoidable delay in the application and appeal process can create an impression that claimants can endlessly prolong their stay or manage to remain despite being refused permission to do so. This can reinforce hostility towards them, as was articulated by the remarks of the Rt Hon Michael Heseltine MP on 1 January 2001.[15]

22.  We accept that asylum generates issues of policy and administration which are proper subjects for political debate. We acknowledge that such debate should be conducted in a sensitive fashion, and we note that the United Kingdom has a long and honourable record in providing refuge for those genuinely fleeing persecution.


23.  Spain has labour shortages in agriculture, building, fishing and domestic work. A lack of labour mobility results in unemployment in northern Spain and eastern Hungary while other parts of both countries have unfilled job vacancies. Britain has also found at times that demand for labour exceeds supply in certain sectors. This may cover transport workers in the 1950s, seasonal farm workers in the 1990s, and, more recently, nurses, doctors and information technology specialists. The Immigration Minister, Barbara Roche MP, said on 11 September 2000 that labour shortages were becoming apparent in some sectors of the economy. The age structure of the population is likely to reduce the proportion of working people to retired people over the next 50 years. We accept that labour shortages in particular parts of the economy and long-term demographic trends reducing the size of the domestic workforce could be addressed by issuing more work permits. The Home Secretary told us :

24.  We welcome the wider debate about immigration policy as a timely reminder that there is a broader context, including employment policy, in which border controls should be seen. There should be a known and clear policy on which immigrants, if any, the country wants to encourage to meet labour shortages and demographic changes.

11  Appendix 9 para 1. Back

12  Q 344 (Mr Hardwick). Back

13  Reader's Digest October 2000. Back

14  Q 412 (Home Secretary). Back

15  Daily Mail 1 January 2001: "As Deputy Prime Minister [in 1995-97] ... I came to three stark conclusions. The first is that a very large number of those seeking asylum are cheats, quite deliberately making bogus claims and false allegations in order to get into this country. They wish to jump the queue made up of those quite properly applying for immigrant status, and others genuinely fleeing from brutal tyrannies. The second was that the demands on scarce housing and medical care made by dishonest 'economic migrants' was likely to stretch the patience of voters and I could well understand why. The third was that the problem of phoney asylum-seekers was likely to grow as the impression spread that this country was a soft touch. Above all, I could see no reason why my most vulnerable constituents - honest and hard-working people who had paid their taxes all their lives - should be pushed to the back of the queue for housing and hospital treatment by dubious asylum-seekers." Back

16  Q 393 (Home Secretary). Back

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