The UN announcement comes after the Home Office had already been accused of ignoring the needs of refugees fleeing war and human rights abuses, by commentators angered at the government’s triumphalism over the reduction in asylum applications.
Figures released by the government last week showed the number of asylum applications in the UK falling to 3,610 in June 2003. David Blunkett commented: “These figures show that the tough measures the government has put in place to prevent illegal immigration and tackle abuse of the asylum system are working. We now have half as many claims as we did nearly a year ago.”
“The changing situation in Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka has also played a part and this is reflected elsewhere in Europe. But claims have fallen more than twice as much in the UK than elsewhere in Europe because of our tough measures.”
However, UN figures released yesterday showing drops in the number asylum seekers across the industrialised west in the second quarter of this year undermined the Home Secretary’s claim that government policy had cut the number of applications in the UK.
The UN reported that in addition to a 34% quarterly decrease in the UK, other European countries also saw significant reductions, including drops of 31% in Spain and Ireland, a 24% drop in Germany, and a reduction of 22% in Sweden.
The humiliation for David Blunkett follows attacks on the government by commentators angered at the victorious tone the Home Office adopted in announcing the drop in asylum applications and the emphasis it placed on the on the figures.
Commentators have attempted to throw a spotlight on the plight of those seeking asylum, and have accused the government of ignoring the needs of refugees fleeing war and human rights abuses.
The Refugee Council has pointed out that the main countries of origin for asylum applicants, according to the Home Office figures, are Somalia, Zimbabwe and China, all of which have poor human rights records.
Maeve Sherlock said: “Simply preventing people from entering the UK cannot be referred to as a success when some of those people may be in desperate need of our help.”
The Refugee Council is also concerned that government action may be deterring individuals from applying for asylum once in the country.
Sherlock commented: “Forcing asylum seekers who do manage to get here into homelessness and destitution has a negligible effect on numbers and is frankly inhumane.
“If the government wishes to see a long term, sustainable reduction in numbers it must take into account and address the root causes of forced migration and accept that driving asylum seekers out on to the streets helps no-one”.
The Refugee Council was joined by the Institute for Public Policy Research, a think-tank known for its close links to New Labour, which also chose to speak out against the government’s asylum policy.
IPPR said that people fleeing war and human rights abuses are being prevented from reaching the UK by tough asylum policies that have been introduced this year. It also said that measures intended to deter economic migrants were excluding those in need of protection.
Dr Heaven Crawley commented: “The Home Office has introduced a range of measures which it believes will deter and prevent economic migrants from using the asylum system to avoid UK immigration controls. At the same time it has pledged to provide protection to those genuinely in need.
“If the measures had been successful in meeting both these objectives, we would expect to see the number of those granted refugee status increase proportionately. The fact that we have not suggests that the measures fail to differentiate between those who are genuinely in need of protection and those who are not.”
She continued: “The reduction in the number of applications has been achieved principally by making it difficult for everyone, regardless of their circumstances, to get into the UK.”
It also emerged earlier this week that the UN’s high commissioner for refugees had written to the lord chancellor, Lord Falconer, criticising the government for plans to cut publicly funded legal advice to asylum seekers making their case to immigration officers from 100 hours to a maximum of five hours.
The UN warned that the proposal to limit the availability of legal advice will harm deserving and vulnerable asylum seekers who have to navigate an unfamiliar legal system, often with poor English language skills.
The government’s concern with being able to show it has reduced the number of asylum applications in the UK comes after concerted campaigns by national newspapers, such as the Daily Express and The Sun, to pressure the government on the issue.
The Home Office figures released last week showed that the number of asylum applicants fell to 3,610 in June 2003, apparently putting the government on track to meet its target to halve the 8,770 applications in October 2002. In addition, the new figures showed a 20% increase in the number of forced removals of asylum applicants.
The Home Office claimed that radical reforms in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 had contributed to the reduction in asylum applications.
These measures included a list of designated safe countries to which refused applicants can be removed quickly with no right of appeal in the UK, restricting access to benefits for those who do not claim as soon as reasonably practicable, and a new shared EU database of fingerprints that can reveal if someone has already claimed asylum in another EU country.