London, 11 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the British Parliament this week, "Once we sort out the asylum system, we must also continue to rout out abuse of our broader immigration." The Parliament has begun reviewing proposed government amendments to the country's asylum and immigration bill.
The government says the amendments will add muscle to the bill's existing reforms by preventing abuse of immigration laws and protecting the rights of legitimate asylum seekers.
"If somebody has been given refugee status, our view is that they should not be a second-class citizen. They should continue to enjoy the same rights as the rest of us, and that includes the right to chose where to live."
But critics counter that the proposed changes are little more than a last-minute attempt to improve the ruling Labour party's poor record on immigration issues.
Anthony Brown is a correspondent for "The Times" newspaper who frequently reports on immigration.
He says, "It's undoubtedly, to some extent, panic measures, if that's not putting it too strongly. The government is concerned about the very high level of concern amongst the public about immigration, and it's very keen to be seen as acting tough on immigration -- in particular illegal immigration, which is what people are worried about. And that includes not asylum, not legitimate asylum, but failed asylum seekers who actually stay in the U.K."
The question of asylum is further compounded by the difficulty in determining which claims are legitimate and which are not. Government figures indicate that between 80 and 90 percent of asylum claims are unfounded.
The amendments, in part, seek to deal with those failed asylum seekers who remain in the country, by stripping their right of appeal. It also proposes more active identification of those immigrants who use study and marriage as a justification for their asylum claims.
If the amendments are accepted, foreign nationals will have to demonstrate that they have entered the country lawfully and have permission to be there. Foreigners seeking to marry will not be allowed to do so without first demonstrating that they are in the country legitimately.
"There is a lot of concern in the U.K. about bogus marriages of people just marrying U.K. citizens or EU citizens, just for right to live in the U.K., and there have been figures showing that one in five marriages in London is bogus for that reason," Brown says.
Another amendment involves failed asylum applicants who cannot return to their countries of origin. Such people would now be required to perform community service to earn their living until they are able to leave the country.
The proposal has raised concern among rights workers, like Stephen Rylance of the Manchester-based Refugee Action Group.
"Community service is something that we associate with criminals; it's normally a [penal] sentence. So to put [failed asylum-seekers] to work picking up litter seems to me to serve little useful purpose other than to send out a tough rhetorical message to the public. I think it's potentially quite humiliating," Rylance says.
There is also an amendment to permit appeals on cases depriving someone of British nationality and appeals against the removal or deportation of former citizens to be heard together.
Brown calls it a "very specific" measure aimed at Abu Hamza, the militant Muslim cleric who was recently arrested on a U.S. extradition warrant. Officials in the U.K. are looking to strip Hamza of his British citizenship, which he gained through marriage.
"This clause is specifically aimed -- I am sure -- at Abu Hamza. It only applies to a very small handful of people, and the most high-profile case by far is Abu Hamza. I think there [are] only about five other cases where the government [is] considering it," Brown says.
Other amendments deal with successful asylum applicants. The government proposes that such people no longer be entitled to compensation for income lost during the time their claims are being processed. Instead, they would be able to receive "integration" loans, and would be eligible for subsidized housing in specific areas of the country.
Some critics say the final stipulation -- which excludes immigrants from receiving social housing in London and southeast England -- amounts to discrimination.
"If somebody has been given refugee status, our view is that they should not be a second-class citizen,” Rylance says. “They should continue to enjoy the same rights as the rest of us, and that includes the right to chose where to live."
Rylance and other rights-watchers intend to make sure the government amendments meet stiff resistance in Parliament.