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Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, I understand that no amendments have been set down to this Bill and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. Therefore, unless any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment be discharged.
The noble Lord said: This is a timely moment for your Lordships to consider the worrying increase in the number of asylum seekers. The Home Secretary made a speech last week to the Institute of Public Policy in which he said, among much else, that he thought that the 1951 convention on refugees, which is the tablet of stone from which all discussions and negotiations have subsequently proceeded, was no longer working as its framers had intended. Last night, a headline in the Evening Standard stated:
The ship was called "The Earl William". I remember that Diane Abbott regularly referred to it as "The Prison Ship" or "Prison Hulk". It was a modern, rather comfortable car ferry. I decided that I should visit it. I went with my immigration officials to Harwich. It was a lovely, sunny morning. They were a little worried about our visit. I think they thought that I might be hit on the head. As I walked up the gangplank I was delighted to hear a rousing cheer. It was only when I reached the deck, feeling rather pleased with myself, perhaps, that I realised that everyone on board was sitting in the sun watching the test match. An important English wicket had just fallen to the Pakistani bowlers. For the rest it was a hard grind.
Perhaps I may return to the convention. Your Lordships will know that the 1951 convention was originally written only for those who had been refugees before 1951. The 1967 protocol applied it to all refugees and that remains its present status. The UK was one of the first countries to sign it. We actively promoted it. I believe that 137 countries are now signatories. We must remember that it applies to refugees and displaced people all over the world. Only 20 per cent of the world's refugees are either in or will try to come to Europe.
Some of your Lordships may have listened to a television programme last night about Rwanda, in which it was mentioned that 1 million people will either be killed or will be attempting to cross the borders as a result of the civil war. Against that background one has to say that our problems pale into insignificance. That said, it is sensible to try to modernise the convention. That will not be easy. It was written for the 1930s, when people fled in front of German armies, for example, across borders. The idea was that they would apply for asylum in the next country they reached. The convention does not take account of mass travel, long-distance flight or lorries moving across Europe.
The principle of the "first safe country", established by the 1951 convention, that you sought and were given asylum if you established your position as a refugee in the first safe country you reached, is simply not being honoured at present. Nor does the Dublin Convention appear to have made it any better. If anything, it seems to have made the position more complicated. It is clear that asylum seekers should not be allowed to shop around in Europe for a particular country. That position must be clarified at a European Council meeting so that all European Union countries, all of which are regarded as safe havens, will meet their obligations.
That leads me to our domestic problems, which are worrying. I would be the last to think otherwise. In my last year as a Minister at the Home Office there were 7,000 refugee applicants. That number had risen from 4,000. We are told that in the past 12 months there were 76,000 applicants. The graph seems firmly upwards. In my judgment, there are two principles clearly at stake. The first is that unfounded asylum applications, to use the technical term, should be treated and dealt with as quickly as possible within the context of a reasonable and fair hearing. If the unfounded asylum seeker does not succeed, he should be returned to his country of origin as soon as possible. The second, and perhaps even overriding, principle must be to find the genuine refugees, the victims of persecution, those in terrible trouble in their own home, and offer them protection.
Obviously, the larger the number applying, the harder it will be to find the genuine person. I remember that it was difficult enough with 7,000. It must be almost impossible with 76,000. I well remember looking at the files of applicants. I remember looking at photographs of legs that had been smashed and knees that were scarred and twisted, and being told that that was evidence of torture of the applicant in his own country. As a Minister I had to make the terrible decision as to whether such scars were genuine or self-inflicted. At times, that was an enormously difficult, heart-rending job.
So, what do we do about it? Over the past year or two the Government have taken many initiatives. I am sure that in winding up the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, will tell us about them, so I shall not try to do so. However, one that stands out is the starting up of a detention centre at Oakington, the old RAF camp outside Cambridge. I believe that the intention is to deal with 1,000 applications per month. A worrying point is that the costs are £800 per head per week, as
I should like to refer to one or two problems which have been mentioned to me by the Immigration Advisory Service and ask the Minister to reply. First, as the IAS point out, once an applicant is dispersed from Oakington, the IAS find it difficult to keep in contact because the National Asylum Support Service does not supply follow-up addresses. In consequence, the applicant does not turn up at the IAS local office for instructions as to what he should do. From there, he does not turn up when his appeal is being heard. If an appellant does not turn up, his application is automatically dismissed. Can the Minister tell us how many appeals have recently been dismissed because the applicants did not turn up, and what measures he proposes to take to deal with that matter?
My other concern of detail rests with the question of full asylum interviews being conducted at airports. In the old days, when someone arrived at an airport and applied for asylum, he was usually given admittance on a temporary basis for 10 days and told to turn up then with a document which explained his whole position, often known as a statement of evidence. I understand that now, because of the greater number of immigration officials at airports, which is a good thing, many full asylum interviews are being conducted the moment someone gets off the aeroplane, perhaps after a 12-hour flight.
That is not humane. It is not tolerable for someone on arrival at an airport to be put through a three-hour interview on which his or her future life may depend and in which he or she is asked to describe the murder of children at home, rape or other kind of horrible crime. There should be a delay and I hope that where there is none the Minister will agree to its introduction.
As regards statements of evidence, I understand that guidance notes in the language of the applicant are often not available. Unless a statement is completed within 10 days the application is automatically dismissed. That situation also needs examination, and flexibility is required.
The most controversial of my points is concerned with economic migrants. Demographic surveys show us the changing nature of our population. We are told that soon 25 per cent of the population will be over 65, and I declare a personal interest in that. Whichever Government win the next election, there is a case for studying the immigration rules in order to ascertain whether it would be sensible to allow some people to apply for visas to enter this country as immigrant workers. They would apply on the principle that once here they would get a job. They would be allowed to stay for perhaps three years, at the end of which they would be checked out. If they had good references and a continuing job, they would be allowed to stay. Perhaps at the end of the day they might be given indefinite leave to remain. If they did not have a job or satisfactory references, they would be returned to their
That would have definite advantages. The negative one is that the economic migrants--those who had declared themselves as such on their visa application--could not have the protection of the 1951 convention. Even more positively, such people could add force to our economy as and where labour shortage becomes apparent, both skilled and semi-skilled. Furthermore, that approach would put out of business the crooks and the Mafia who are making a profitable living by taking savings from and ferrying across the world those whom they fool into believing that they can obtain for them a permanent place here in Britain. As we know from newspaper headlines, some die en route on the Eurostar or in lorries. However, my proposal would remove much of such business from many crooks.
I accept that the suggestion is controversial but it could be the most productive way of allowing economic migrants to apply honestly and openly for jobs in Britain and thus make it easier to distinguish the genuine refugees.
A few days ago, I listened to a Kosovar refugee talking on a BBC programme called "Taking a Stand". She described herself and those like her as both victims and survivors. They are victims, obviously, but as survivors they fought using their ingenuity to travel to a country where they could have a future. Such people are likely to have something to contribute to that country. It was often said that the growth of the USA began on Ellis Island. Refugees need to help themselves and they may well help us, too. That, together with our humanitarian instincts, should be at the forefront of our thinking as regards this difficult problem. I beg to move for Papers.
Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, the whole House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, for initiating a debate on this topical subject in order to shed light on it. It is an honour to follow him. I am grateful for the opportunity to set the scene on what kind of people asylum seekers and refugees are. I declare an interest as a former member of the Immigration Complaints Audit Committee, so I have come across some of the background.
Home Office research in The Settlement of Refugees in Britain says that over a third have university degrees; two-thirds were in employment in their home country; and those who had not been in employment were either students or people, mainly women, caring for a home and family. Of the jobs which those in employment had held, 30 per cent were professional; 10 per cent were managers or employers; 20 per cent were skilled; and only 5 per cent unskilled. Over 90 per cent could speak at least one other language besides their own.
Some noble Lords may have read in the Guardian yesterday about Professor Abdul Lalzad, a refugee from Afghanistan, who is an authority on the use of solar power to desalinate water, one of many helped by the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics.
The Council for Assisting Refugee Academics has an honourable tradition originating in the persecution of Jews in Germany. I pay tribute to the contribution refugees have made to this country over not just the last two centuries but, in fact, since the origins of settlement in these islands.
It is hardly surprising that refugees tend to be an asset to the receiving country. Many are refugees because they have risked their safety in defending political freedom in an undemocratic country. Such people are likely to have democratic principles of the kind that our society values. The majority are educated young men, so they are potentially net payers into the national revenue. I should like to ask my noble friend the Minister what efforts the Government are making to help such people integrate into employment in this country.
However, whatever the benefits to this country of absorbing refugees, in the end to receive the victims of torture and persecution is not an economic question but a moral one. The economic consequences happen not to be dire and disastrous, as some ill-informed newspapers would have it; and the numbers even of those claiming asylum are a very small fraction of the world total, a small proportion, pro rata, of the European total, and a small increase on previous years. But the reason why democratic countries cannot abandon the victims of tyranny is precisely because of their--our--democratic values: a commitment to universal human rights, underpinned by most of the major religious faiths and by the simple decency of many ordinary people.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, when I saw this Motion on the Order Paper I was rather nervous about the tone that might be adopted in the debate, but I was fully reassured by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, and agreed with a good deal of what he said. I should like to pick up one particular point; namely, his condemnation of the trafficking in people and his appeal to the Home Office to expend more resources to deal with that aspect of the problem. In a study by some academics at the University of North London published by the Home Office it is estimated that as many as 1,400 women may be
I also agree with the noble Lord in suggesting that we look at the causes of refugee flows into the United Kingdom and the conflicts in many parts of the world, such as Kosovo, East Timor, Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Eritrea. The noble Lord added a couple of countries to my list: Rwanda and eastern Turkey, from which a large number of Kurdish refugees come to this country for asylum. The number of asylum seekers is not a dependent variable that can be influenced by government policies but an independent variable with which we must deal as we find it. That is quite clear from the report of the High Commissioner for Refugees published on the 50th anniversary of the UNHCR in which she draws attention to these major problems.
If one looks at our own figures, the originating states are all scenes of internal conflict or severe repression. In Iraq, which consistently heads the list month after month, there is a vicious dictator who executes people without trial and ethnically cleanses the marsh Arabs and the Kurdish population of the Kirkuk area. In the 12 months to June 2000 by far the largest number of applicants came from Kosovo, as one would expect. Certainly, it cannot be said that we are making it so attractive for people to come here that Britain is a magnet for asylum seekers from all over the world. They come into Europe generally and Great Britain in particular, and we must deal with the problem as we find it.
In my remaining two minutes I should like to concentrate on one extremely worrying aspect of the problem: the intention of the Home Office to cram an additional 500 asylum seekers into our already overcrowded prison system. At Question Time today my noble friend Lord Dholakia called attention to the observations of the Director-General and Chief Inspector of Prisons about the serious crisis in our prisons. Can one imagine anything more foolish and irresponsible than to cram another 500 asylum seekers into our prisons which are already finding it so difficult to cope? The Minister, Barbara Roche, has explained that this was a necessary short-term measure which would apply only until October 2001 when additional capacity will become available, we hope, in purpose-built detention centres at Yarl's Wood near Bedford, Harmondsworth and Dungavel in Scotland to accommodate almost 1,500 detainees.
At the end of last year there were 1,195 immigration Act detainees in prisons and detention centres, and that number had risen steadily from fewer than 1,000 in March last year. The reason for the increase given by the Minister, and the planned further rise, is to enable the UK to speed up removals from 8,000 in 1999-2000 to 12,000 in this financial year and 30,000 in the year 2000-01.
If one imagines that every detainee subject to removal will spend as long as two weeks in custody--one hopes that that is a considerable over-estimate--one calculates that 690 places will be required, whereas by October there will be twice that number. Can the Minister say whether, after the new premises are fully operational, the IND will cease to use prisons to detain asylum seekers except in emergencies, when it would be for no more than, say, 72 hours? If not, how do the Government reconcile that with their acceptance of the chief inspector's repeated criticisms of the practice?
Undoubtedly, there are problems to be addressed if we are to achieve the aims of the White Paper and have an asylum policy that is firmer, fairer and faster. I believe that the way forward is not to put up even more barriers which stop qualified refugees, as well as those who flee destitution, starvation and conflict. If the Government go down the road of amending the 1951 convention, as the Home Secretary appeared to suggest and the Select Committee in another place explicitly recommended--here I depart from the noble Lord, Lord Renton--we must beg to disagree.
The UNHCR's Three Circles consultations now being undertaken presuppose that states reaffirm their lawful commitment as signatories to the convention, while attempting to reach agreement on new phenomena that have developed since 1951, such as the militarisation of refugee camps. But to pretend that refugees do not exist by keeping them out of Europe, or making conditions as harsh as possible for those who do get here, is not honourable or humane.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, for introducing the debate and for the tone which he set. He recalled his two years at the Home Office where as a Minister he dealt with many of these matters. As a constituency MP at the time, I regularly took cases to him. He always showed great fairness, objectivity and impartiality in the way that he dealt with these matters, and that has been characterised by his speech today.
If ever there was an issue that cried out for a bipartisan approach it is this. It is always tempting to turn asylum seekers and refugees into another partisan question and suggest that one party or another is a soft touch, less competent or more callous than the others. The tone which the noble Lord set today helps us to avoid that trap. The impression that this issue is just another political punch-bag is too frequently reinforced by emotive and histrionic assertions and headlines which are sometimes used against asylum
Before the previous general election I served on the Standing Committee in another place which considered what became the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996. Two years later I participated in the debates in your Lordships' House on the present Government's legislation. The White Paper Fairer, Faster and Firmer correctly identified delays in processing claims as being the crux of the problem in the asylum system. At paragraph 3.3 it said:
Since the publication of the White Paper there has been a continued increase in the number of asylum seekers: 71,000 in 1999 to 76,000 last year, which compares with just 4,000 in 1988. Meanwhile, the backlog has risen from some 50,000 in 1997 to 66,000 according to an Answer provided by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, on 25th January of this year. Against those trends, I welcome the Government's decision to put more caseworkers on to processing applications. That has led to about 9,000 decisions per month compared with 7,000 new applications per month. Eventually, that will have some effect. But even those figures may be misleading, depending on the number of cases still to be released to the immigration appellate authority. That points perhaps to the need for further personnel, thus enabling cases to be turned around more rapidly. If, as the Immigration Service Union alleged yesterday, only about 12 people per month are removed against their wishes, it does not suggest that we have yet designed an appropriate processing system.
During earlier debates I suggested that vouchers and dispersal were distractions which would devour resources and energy. Vouchers require hundreds of people to administer them. Two years ago, in the debates on the previous legislation, the Minister estimated that about 300 people would be needed. Those hundreds of people could be properly examining and processing applications. Vouchers were never going to deter people from coming here, and they have not. Experience over the past 10 months shows that vouchers are a bureaucratic nightmare; one which humiliates and stigmatises asylum seekers and flatly contradicts other policies, such as those targeting child poverty and social exclusion. Of the 50 organisations surveyed for the report Token Gestures, 49 stated that the voucher scheme is creating serious difficulties.
In our debate in October 1999 (at col. 1144 of the Official Report on 20th October) I asked the Government about potential stigmatisation and discrimination of voucher users and also about the inability of people using vouchers to receive change when they redeemed their vouchers. I pointed to the inevitable consequences of not being able to shop in
Scrapping vouchers could release hundreds of people to deal with the current backlog. The knowledge that a false application will be efficiently and expeditiously processed, and ill founded applicants quickly returned, would send a far more effective signal than what has proved to be an ill conceived scheme.
But, if vouchers do not work, nor does the policy of dispersal. Sending two bus loads of refugees to Glasgow each day--1,720 per month--is not a solution. Perhaps the Minister can tell the House how many asylum seekers are refusing offers of accommodation, and what is known about their subsequent propensity to migrate back to the South East of England once they have been settled somewhere else.
As the noble Lord, Lord Renton, implied in his remarks, it would represent a far more honest approach if we allowed economic migrants to come here for short-term labour instead of donning the false clothes of asylum seekers. If they could find regulated gainful employment for short periods, then they could make a useful and honest contribution to our economy. A regulatory approach might also stop their exploitation.
To sum up, an alternative approach might involve five steps: accepting the humanitarian obligation to provide refuge for those who are genuinely at risk; allowing a fixed number of short-term workers to work here legally; abandoning vouchers and dispersal; ensuring a fair system of legal representation and expeditious handling of applications; and, finally, we must construct a more bipartisan approach, as well as fostering the welcome recognition by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, of the international dimension in addressing the reasons why people try to escape and flee from their countries of origin in the first place.
The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, it was quite clear from the style and content of the opening speech of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, that he spoke from the heart and with a great deal of knowledge. All of us, I hope, are grateful to him for that introduction and for giving us the opportunity to express both our concern and responsibility for some of the world's uprooted people. The problem is global. I shall refer to that in a moment. But first I want to bring to your Lordships' attention the situation as it is experienced
In the North East we have experienced the arrival of about 2,500 asylum seekers in the past year. A consortium, led by the local authorities, but with the essential partnership of many voluntary bodies, has vigorously tried to provide housing, friendship and learning opportunities for those who arrive with few possessions and their human dignity under threat. The consortium has so far worked with minimal resources, against the background of difficulties in the dispersal system and sometimes with the threat of racial attacks with limited support for its victims.
Nevertheless, the North East sees many positive opportunities to welcome asylum seekers as people who can make a contribution to the local economy, both in filling and in creating employment opportunities. They create new social and cultural initiatives to support the developing multi-cultural society of the North East and they raise awareness of the world's political and social changes.
North East charitable trusts are very active in supporting the voluntary sector. Health services are putting effort into facilitating medical professionals among the asylum seekers being able to contribute to the health needs of the region. Among them six doctors are practising and continuing their placements in local hospitals. Others are seeking to enhance their qualifications so that they may practice here. Some of the refugees have started their own businesses and are beginning to employ local people. National and local politicians are active in co-ordinating much effort by the churches, other religious groups and community associations, in order to make welcome and useful the skills which many asylum seekers bring. A new project, Genesis 2000, is researching the needs of professionally qualified refugees, not least in language learning opportunities. This research is seen as crucial to providing a long-term future for refugees and asylum seekers.
Through the Legal Services Commission, a number of solicitors in the North East have successfully met the standards set for them and are now able to offer legal advice on a comprehensive basis. I cannot stress too highly the importance of the contribution of many voluntary agencies. Tenants' associations and local churches have created drop-in centres, activity groups, language classes, reception centres and people have provided much personal hospitality in their homes for asylum seekers. These are examples from one region but I dare say that such initiatives are happening in many parts of the country. They should counteract inappropriate and alarmist attitudes which we sometimes hear.
Nevertheless, these local efforts and successes should not hide the size of the national and global problem. Local initiatives are motivated by a desire to offer shelter to uprooted people; to extend sanctuary to people in danger; to ensure protection of uprooted
It is important that we understand, and are sympathetic to, the political, economic, social and environmental reasons for uprooting; that we listen to the stories of asylum seekers about the reasons they left their homeland and their hopes for return; and that we examine the role of governments in creating situations which uproot people.
While the debate will serve to draw attention to increasing numbers of asylum seekers, I trust that it will not encourage those who would advocate draconian measures for control. In this country, we are seeing but a small part of a huge global problem which is causing human suffering on a vast scale.
The Government should be urged to participate vigorously in the ratification and implementation of the UN convention and protocol relating to the status of refugees. They should go on and support the protection of the rights of all migrant workers and their families. We should encourage the Government to utilise the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in the help and advocacy that we afford to uprooted children. The international community should further develop mechanisms to protect refugees and those who are internally displaced, or who cannot be voluntarily repatriated.
In these ways at local, national and international levels, we need to demonstrate a civilised world when, for many people, civilisation seems to be breaking up. We can accompany people in decisions to remain, to leave or to return. We can provide services to respond to material, social and spiritual needs. We can support the initiatives of asylum seekers themselves. We can further engage in the enrichment which living in a diversity of cultures affords. Above all, we must avoid the proliferation of prejudiced, knee-jerk and alarmist reactions to a crisis for humanity and the selfish or parochial rejection of foreigners in need.
Lord Garel-Jones: My Lords, I should perhaps begin my remarks by saying to your Lordships that I have not changed my territorial designation to "early pls", as set out on the speakers' list. It is just that when I put down my name to speak I had planned to be going abroad later this afternoon--not, I hasten to say, as an asylum seeker but more as an economic migrant of the kind mentioned by my noble friend Lord Renton.
I join those who have already spoken in thanking my noble friend for the way he introduced the debate. It is right that the starting point should be the UN Convention on Human Rights. We need to have a
The Minister of State at the Home Office, speaking in another place, was also right to say that since that time conditions have changed dramatically. My noble friend made that point in introducing the debate. International travel and the way in which conflicts now seem to be springing up in the four corners of the Earth have meant that we are now facing problems of a different dimension to those which the framers of the convention could have envisaged--criminality, the exploitation of women and the exploitation of children. It is a problem of a different dimension.
I commend two steps which the Government have taken in their approach to the problem. First, when they introduced the Immigration and Asylum Bill, I was pleased that it was considered by a Special Standing Committee in another place. My party was criticised for not being robust in that committee, but that was simply a reflection of the wish from the Conservative side of the House that the Bill be given a fair wind. Secondly, the introduction of civil penalties has been successful in deterring and in relieving a good deal of the pressure on our ports, although there are a number of matters which the Road Haulage Association would like to see refined.
However, the two cornerstones of the Immigration and Asylum Act have not been successful. First, the dispersal system--the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to it in his remarks: I shall not add to what he said--has been an instigator of racial harassment in a number of instances. It means that the people who are dispersed do not have access to the kind of services that they need and require and it frequently means that they live in extremely squalid conditions. Dispersal has not been a successful policy.
Secondly, the voucher system--the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to that as well--has been a spectacular failure. To be fair to the Government, they have, under pressure from organisations such as Oxfam, which produced a report, responded to many of the criticisms. But, suffice it to say, all 50 organisations that were contacted agreed that since the introduction of the voucher scheme there has been an increase in the number of asylum seekers experiencing problems. The report lists a whole range of problems that have been experienced by these people. Therefore, I think that it would not be unfair and, I hope, too partisan to say that the two cornerstones of that piece of legislation have not been an outstanding success. It is no good the Government saying in the other place that it is all the fault of the shambles left by the previous Conservative government. We have all
I turn to constructive proposals--and although I worked very closely at some stages in my life with my noble friend Lord Renton, there has been no connivance in this area. One of the proposals that I was going to put forward was that genuine economic migrants should be given a status in this country. They would have a contribution to make--rather along the lines of the guest workers in Germany. That would relieve a good deal of pressure from the system and, at a time when our age profile is changing, they would have a serious contribution to make.
I very much support the proposal made in another place by my party for secure reception centres. The principal criticism levelled against them from the Government Benches is one of cost. It is hardly for this Chancellor, who is about to embark on the biggest spending binge that we in this country have ever seen, which has been rightly criticised by the European Commission, to complain about the cost of what is a serious problem and one with which we are not dealing properly.
In conclusion, I would say that, introduced with the best intentions, the two cornerstones of the Immigration and Asylum Act have not been fairer, have not been faster and have not been firmer. I very much hope that the Government will address these problems and that they will address in particular the suggestion made by my noble friend in the spirit in which it was put forward.
The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, we have the impression in this country that we are a generous nation, with a long tradition of hospitality. Like all noble Lords, I am proud of that tradition and I hope that we continue it in so far as we can. I do not believe that this Government are a "soft touch" when it comes to asylum seekers; nor do I believe that this country should open its doors to newcomers without proper scrutiny of the motives for which they come. But this impression of generosity bears closer examination.
If, for example, we measure the number of refugees per 1,000 of our population, we find that in 1999 we were 49th on the list of 150 countries with refugees. Even in terms of absolute numbers, according to the UN, we are 23rd on the list. Europe as a whole has 3.1 million refugees, and last year we ranked 10 out of 25 in terms of applicants per head. So the impression given in all the media that asylum seekers are pouring into the country and causing concern because of their increasing numbers is somewhat wide of the truth. We are not as generous as we should like to appear and sections of the press certainly confirm that impression when they play up prejudices.
Nevertheless, there is no denying that because of persecution around the world applications have gone up from places like the former Yugoslavia and Iraq. Last year the Home Office recorded 76,000 applications. Taking December alone, the main
One reliable witness is the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. It confirms that an unprecedented number of people sought its help last year. It received 4,957 referrals--1,500 more than in any other year. The countries included Turkey, Sri Lanka, Iran, Iraq and Kosovo. I have a list of the leading groups of asylum seekers in the UK last year: Iraqis, 7,080; Yugoslavians, 5,695. Surely no one can be in doubt that these people are genuinely seeking asylum; indeed 31 per cent of new applicants were accepted last year, and that figure is rising.
Unfortunately, however, the Government's figures have been distorted by the backlog of 66,000 and the now famous "black hole" in the statistics which falls somewhere between initial decisions and final appeals. Initial refusals made on the grounds of non-compliance, or on the fact that forms have not been filled in, are sometimes withdrawn. Similarly, initial appeal decisions may subsequently be altered at a second hearing. In both cases, the statistics are not recorded.
The Immigration Service Union rightly complained this week that too few asylum seekers are being removed. Fewer than 9,000 were expelled last year. Can the Minister say how many more officials are being recruited and how the Government can make up for the acute shortage of legal advisers? This latter point was made earlier in the debate.
While the backlog is being cleared and the statistics revised, it would be premature for us to leap to conclusions about the actual numbers. What we can be sure of, however, is that the evidence confirms that there is a much higher proportion of genuine applicants than was previously assumed. I welcome the Home Secretary's latest commitment to the principles of the convention, to the need for the UN global consultation and, above all, to agree an EU common asylum policy.
I hope that we shall have an opportunity to discuss the wider issues of migration. A moral question arises here. Are we shedding our responsibilities by passing the buck over to countries further away which do not have the means to support asylum seekers? Look at the results in Lebanon today, to take only one example. We see the failure of the UN system and the cruelty shown to second and third-generation Palestinians. I have seen the same resentment in Sudan, Thailand and elsewhere. Over the past few days, we have even seen it outside Calais.
The expanded use of resettlement procedures outside Europe is attractive only if sufficient resources are made available. Macedonia and Kosovo were rare examples. Care must be taken not to bring regular migration criteria into a process designed to help genuine, urgent cases of protection.
The Home Secretary mentioned an "intermediate" category of potential asylum seekers held outside the UK while their applications are processed. Perhaps the Minister could explain this idea. The latest agreement on Eurostar is one specific suggestion, but I have misgivings about a policy designed for the UK and individual states, involving offshore reception centres which could become huge permanent enclaves of stateless populations with no destination at all. At the very least, such a policy should be brought firmly within the EU common framework and widely understood by the public. There is a risk that asylum and migration will become more confused if we tighten the rules to catch would-be illegal immigrants and thereby alter the basic instruments of refugee protection.
Is it not a little premature to propose any international solutions before we have even embarked on a common asylum policy in Europe? Our attitude as Europeans should be one of the basic determining characteristics of our European identity, yet we have given it the lowest priority.
Finally, I am sorry that the Home Secretary has again brought up the concept of safe countries. We went through this during the passage of the 1996 Bill when the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had a fast-track "white list". All the specialised agencies commented on how unworkable it was because a genuine fear of persecution exists in every country.
Lord Judd: My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, pointed out in his commendably thoughtful speech--the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, and others made the same point--it is essential to keep a sense of proportion. Of the total number of refugees in the world, the European Union hosts less than 5 per cent, and Britain less than 1 per cent. The overwhelming majority are in the third world. Tanzania, one of the poorer countries of the world, alone hosts 413,000. Last year, Tanzania received only 46 per cent of the humanitarian aid for which the UN appealed.
The Home Secretary referred to generous international aid for Kosovo refugees in Albania and Macedonia in 1999. That may be true, but no other area of the world with refugees has received that level of aid.
Having spent most of my life outside Westminster working for humanitarian agencies, I constantly find myself despairing at our failure to focus on the conditions which lead people to migrate. In recent years, escalating violence and cruel persecution across the globe have increasingly compelled people to flee their homes, often at enormous risk to themselves and their families. The majority of refugees coming to the UK to seek asylum in recent years have come from the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Colombia, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. All of these, without exception, are countries where there has been serious conflict or where grave human rights abuses are common, or both.
Yes, the figures for asylum seekers are rising, but it is obvious that there are connections between those and the increases in human rights abuses and persecution. Despite the increase in the number of asylum seekers, it remains true, as has already been emphasised in this debate, that relative to our size of population, last year, Britain was still well down the list of European countries taking such seekers.
It has been suggested that asylum seekers should remain in the first country to which they flee. If that was applied across the globe, it would place an even greater burden on some of the world's poorest countries, which already host a disproportionately high number of refugees. In our own continent, it would accentuate the burden on frontline states where surely, if European co-operation is about anything, it should be about sharing in our response to humanitarian challenges.
It has also been suggested that we should consider revising the international laws and conventions covering the rights of refugees. But surely the period of the immediate run-up to a general election, with all its inevitable heat and hype, is precisely the time not to question such fundamental rights. Already there has been altogether too much emotion, sensationalism, exaggeration and prejudice. I fear that it would get worse. If changed circumstances in the world do demand a reconsideration of the rules, as laid down by great statesmen of vision in the aftermath of the Second World War, this should be done carefully, dispassionately, rationally and in the context of a determination to uphold the rights and protections of those at risk, not as part of a competition to win the prize for macho negativism.
By the same token, we should be wary of restrictions on the nations from which the European Union states are prepared to accept applications for asylum. After all, the former so-called "white list system" has been discredited. The core principle must remain that asylum seekers are assessed as individuals and not as mere national categories.
Trafficking in human misery is an evil business. Those responsible must be dealt with severely. There can be no doubt about that whatever. But we shall all be judged harshly by history if we use the existence of such wickedness as a cover for our own retreat from humanitarian commitments. Too often, economic refugees--which undoubtedly many asylum seekers really are--are spoken of with disdain. They are called "opportunist fraudsters". But in our own society here in Britain, those who, when they are faced with economic or industrial decline, "get on their bikes"--as it has been described--and go and look elsewhere for work and a secure future for their families, are regarded as model citizens. In our globalised existence, where is the dividing line in principle between the opportunist and the model citizen? We worship the free global market, but it is a free market only for the movement of capital and goods. It is not a free market for the movement of labour. This represents a gigantic distortion of free market principles and we are now faced with the consequences.
Migration will not go away. Global warming and climate change may yet make what we face today seem like child's play by comparison. The whole vexed question is a vivid example of how the market alone will never be an adequate tool for the management of human affairs. We urgently need to get our act together with our partners in Europe and beyond on development aid, world trade, conflict resolution, human rights and environmental policy. Persecution and conflict feed the flow, but perhaps even more important, it is rampant injustice and huge differentials between the rich of the world and the poor of the world which lie at the root of it. Strategic, lasting solutions will be found only by facing up to this. All else is temporary tinkering.
As we come up to the general election, do we want the debate to turn on how we can become an effective, caring, humanitarian nation, facing up to the challenges of human society as a whole, and of which we are inextricably a part? The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, set the tone remarkably well for such a debate in what he said today. Alternatively, do we want to accelerate the slide into becoming a neurotic, selfish, mean and xenophobic offshore island people seemingly intent on betraying our young by pretending that they can have a viable future without belonging to the world?
Lord Mayhew of Twysden: My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend for the way in which he has introduced this debate. I believe that the question of how asylum seekers are to be handled is one of the most difficult and delicate questions that can confront any government. I am not at all surprised that in a recent debate in another place the Home Secretary said that the issue caused him more trouble than any other. Surely, that statement speaks volumes. I often think that any Home Secretary must reflect on the words of Hamlet:
It is perhaps helpful to have a slightly historical perspective. Your Lordships may be astonished to learn that I cannot remember the days in the 1930s when we experienced the influx of Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria. However, my reading and general understanding leads me to believe that there was no general concern about either the number of those refugees or about the integrity and efficiency of the arrangements made for processing and resettling them in our society.
In the more recent case of the Ugandan refugees, to which reference has already been made, I do not think that there was a general lack of confidence in the arrangements, although in some quarters some concern--mercifully overcome--was expressed about numbers. In both those instances, the arrival and re-settlement of those refugees, supported in the main by the public, immeasurably redounded to the advantage
In the case of asylum seekers from a much wider sector of the world--the problem that we currently face--the contrast is very stark. Today there is a very widespread perception that the system, if not out of control, closely borders upon being out of control, and that to an increasing and alarming extent it is influenced, if not dominated, by criminal racketeers. I use the word "perception" in the context that anyone with experience of Northern Ireland might expect. In Northern Ireland one is taught, if one has not already learned it, that perception is almost as important as fact when people's fears are aroused.
Without duplicating what has ably been said by many noble Lords--especially by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, most of whose speech I warmly adopt--I should like to make the point that any society must have restrictive criteria governing the influx of people into its society--those who claim asylum, those who claim to work here. To avoid the kind of alarming and damaging perceptions that I have endeavoured to describe in this particularly delicate field, whatever system any government put in place has to be seen to work. The present system is not working. It is not working in relation to the control that the Government are able to exercise; it is not working in relation to contact with people whose applications have failed; and, considering the other side of the coin, it is not working with regard to the conditions to which people within our shores are subjected in those circumstances.
Reference was made by my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry to what was said yesterday on a BBC radio programme by representatives of the union for immigration officers. That report seemed to indicate that those representatives spoke almost with despair of the failure to ensure the departure from this country of those who do not meet the criteria. I believe that they also spoke about the criminal influences to which I have already referred.
In August last year The Times published a report of a Home Office official suggesting that there are living and working in this country hundreds of thousands of people with whom the Home Office has lost touch. I do not know how much reliability can be placed on that report. However, in his reply, I hope that the Minister will be able to say to what extent the Home Office is in touch with those whose applications have failed and what steps are being taken to ensure that a higher proportion leave this country when their applications, having been adjudicated upon, finally fail. Perhaps the Minister will also confirm that more than two-thirds of applicants fall into that category.
I turn briefly to the other side of the coin. It is a national disgrace that we still impose the voucher system on asylum seekers. Not only is the remedy that they receive extremely mean, but the abominable system by which they can use their vouchers to buy only essentials, from which they cannot obtain change if the sum does not add up, almost beggars description.
In conclusion--I had hoped to deal with the question of housing, in respect of which many adverse comments have been made--I urge the Minister to consider the proposition that the rules we impose are not being seen to work; that blatant breaches of them and their obvious ineffectiveness fuel the most damaging perceptions, not least in those parts of the country where reception takes place; and that we neglect at our peril the urgent need to ensure that public support is regained.
Lord Hylton: My Lords, before turning to the question of numbers, I should first like to mention some ways in which the asylum system could be made more user-friendly. When consulted, all the NGOs said that the voucher system is so fundamentally flawed that it cannot be reformed. Will the Minister say when the Government intend to respond to that consultation? Meanwhile, will he confirm that change will always be given when vouchers are presented as payment? In that regard, I could not agree more with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew.
I turn, secondly, to the matter of long-distance travel to interviews, which I raised at Question Time in this House on 25th January. At that time the Minister was unable to reply positively to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford, who very reasonably suggested that interviewers should visit applicants, not vice versa. Has further consideration been given to this point? Can I expect a favourable reply to my subsequent letter to Mrs Roche at the Home Office?
Thirdly, I deal with the perennial question of detention. When will the automatic bail provisions of the 1999 Act be brought into effect? In my view, they are long overdue. I believe that if full use were made of the good offices of NGOs and churches, detention for reasons other than deportation could be greatly reduced. As has been mentioned, it is a disgrace that parts of our already overcrowded prisons should be occupied by asylum seekers who have committed no offence in this country.
My fourth point concerns appeals. Will the Minister say how many appeals are dismissed in the absence of applicants? When that happens, are applicants always represented? Is there a lack of natural justice, which may increase the number of cases presented for judicial review? I should be grateful if the Minister would provide figures relating to those points.
Fifthly, I deal with the question of deportation. The present and previous governments must share the blame for failing to deport asylum seekers who have exhausted all procedures without getting any form of leave to remain. Why do we have the elaborate procedures if those whose applications fail can remain?
I return now to a point that I have previously raised. Many thousands of people have leave to remain, but they are not British citizens and often do not have any valid passport should they wish to travel. I therefore ask whether they can please be treated at least as well as those who are technically stateless. Will they be provided with travel documents acceptable, for a start, throughout the European Union, and, if possible, more widely?
I conclude by mentioning numbers. The recent large number of applicants has little to do with welfare benefits. It has much to do with the widespread use of English as a second language, with Commonwealth links and with the existence of settled communities in Britain of people who have, over the years, come here from overseas. In addition, this country has a reputation as a fair and just society. I trust that neither the tabloid press nor Her Majesty's Government will take away from this good reputation by adopting unnecessary, macho postures.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, one of the problems of being number 11 on the list of speakers in a debate such as this is that many of the points I was going to make have been made by previous speakers. I decided that I would jot down three points to contribute to your Lordships' debate. The first point has been completely covered by a number of speakers--particularly by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich--and the second point has been covered, almost word for word, by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, who spoke much more eloquently than I would have been able to.
I am therefore left with my third point, which I make with a deep sense of anger--although, in the wonderful spirit in which this debate has been conducted, I shall attempt to turn that anger into sorrow.
In my view, this country at the moment just about complies with its international obligations. What really concerns me is that it is the intention of the Government to stop complying with those obligations in a number of ways in future.
Everyone says that they want to honour the obligations set out in the Home Secretary's Motion; and everyone talks about doing the right thing by genuine refugees. The problem is, however, that the powers that be are turning the screw on asylum seekers who reach this country and ratcheting up the political hysteria. Hardly a day goes by without some new story in the press--whether splashed in the tabloids or reported in a more responsible way--about new tough measures to deal with the problem. I ask the House to consider the effect that this has on asylum seekers who have come here because they were enduring intolerable conditions at home and believed that this country was a fair and just place for them.
Almost all the legal means of getting into Britain from these countries have been stopped. People cannot get visas. When people started coming across in lorries and then on the trains, that was stopped. All kinds of modern technology are now being used, possibly rightly, to stop people coming across in the backs of lorries.
It is clear that there is now a developing new trade in small boats. If people want to cross the Mediterranean or the Adriatic to get into the European Union, most of them cross in small boats. It is very dangerous; there are a lot of deaths and many people suffer injuries. There is now an increasing traffic in small boats across the Channel and the North Sea and, in my view, it will not be long before we hear horrific stories about people being drowned.
These measures were found not to be working and so we have a new policy of sending these people back. Perhaps the Prime Minister will stand on the quay at Dover to turn people away; to put them back on the boat and return them straight to France.
At the same time, we had the suggestion from the Home Secretary that people should not come to this country but should go to the nearest safe country next door. But many of those countries are not safe and, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said, many of them are being destablised and are taking a far greater share of the burden than they can possibly handle given their circumstances.
I have a friend seeking asylum here who I believe has been tortured. I shall not go into details because his case is still being examined. He escaped to this country having spent almost four weeks in the back of one of these lorries--almost four weeks--and yet people say that he is here for an easy life because we are a soft option. His friend merely escaped out of Iran into Turkey. He was chased by Iranian security forces into Turkey and captured in Turkey; he was taken back to Iran and has now disappeared.
I am ashamed of the fact that political debate in this country is dominated so much at the moment by this issue. It is a question of humanity, human rights, our international obligations--and it is about individual people, who, in many, many genuine cases, have come here to escape from suffering. The noble Lord quoted from "Hamlet"; I shall give a different quotation from "Hamlet":
Lord Renton: My Lords, like all noble Lords who have spoken, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has delivered a high-minded speech, with much of which I sympathise. But scarcely any of those speeches--except for that of my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew of Twysden--considered the effect upon our own people of being so generous in accepting so many people from abroad. That is a matter which we have a duty also to consider.
Never in our long history have we had such a large invasion of genuine and bogus asylum seekers as we have had in the past few years. In the past year there has been an increase of 76,000, which is almost the size of a new constituency. My noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry was right to raise this matter.
Perhaps I may dare to do what my noble and learned friend, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, started to do, which was to put the matter into its historical and indeed geographical perspective, especially as regards England. I do so because, 20 years before my noble friend, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, did so, from October 1959 for 3½ years I was responsible at the Home Office for controlling the immigration of foreigners, as it was called then. We had no control over the immigration of British subjects from the Commonwealth because they were entitled to come here. They came in enormous numbers. About 150,000 each year were coming here. They came as refugees, but for economic reasons.
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