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U.K.: British Government To Begin Repatriating Illegal Immigrants

The British government says it is going to begin to repatriate illegal immigrants back to their countries of origin in joint airlifts with France, Spain, Italy, and Germany. The announcement comes in the wake of the government's admission that there are nearly half a million illegal immigrants in the United Kingdom. Other proposed measures include a stiff fine for employing illegal immigrants, as well as limits on student and tourist visas.

London, 7 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Is Britain’s government acting appropriately in cracking down on illegal immigration?

Some critics, like Conservative Member of Parliament Alistair Burt, say no -- that the government is simply panicking.

“The attempt to tramp down in a Draconian fashion is a kind of pattern of behavior from the government we have seen close to elections," burt said. "It panics, it introduces measures, they are not workable, and then, some time later, they think again. This is an inconsistent government, I am afraid.”

The Labor government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair has come under increasing criticism from opposition Conservatives who say it is unable to deal firmly with the question of illegal immigration. Burt says Labor has in the past sought to play down the number of the illegal immigrants in the country.

But statistics released last week estimate there may in fact be more than 500,000 illegal immigrants in the United Kingdom -- something the Conservatives themselves were arguing ahead of Britain's Parliamentary elections in May.

“The figure of around half a million was a figure quoted by us [Conservatives] at the beginning of the [Parliamentary] election campaign," burt said. "It was denied by the government all the way through the election campaign, and therefore we were alleged to be scare-mongering. And then -- surprise, surprise -- a few weeks later it turns out to be true.”

The government has admitted that even that estimate does not include some additional 700,000 failed asylum seekers or those appealing their application rejections.

The government crackdown, says Anthony Browne, an immigration specialist with "The Times" newspaper, is a reaction to public shock over the figures. “I think that the government’s frightened about the amount of public opposition to the scale of immigration, the impression that it’s out of control, and so on," Browne told RFE/RL. "And the government’s reaction to that, I think, is that they’re trying to sort of clamp down on what they see as abuses.”

Browne says the government policy has been to attract and encourage immigration in an orderly way that benefits the economy. But it has been relatively lenient on immigration -- something that has allowed an inflow of many undesirable immigrants, including criminals.

Alistair Burt agreed, saying: “What appears to be clear from independent reports is that the immigration-control system is much weaker than people in Britain believe it to be. It has been penetrated by criminal elements from Eastern European countries, from Albania, from Russia. Our ability to know who is coming in, when they go out, appears to have been behind the times.”

British Home Secretary Charles Clarke is believed to be pushing for a new visa arrangement that would make visas conditional on a pledge from outside countries to take failed asylum seekers back. Student visas are also set to become more expensive and will be issued for strictly limited periods.

This measure has drawn criticism from over 100 British universities that are largely dependent on foreign students for income.

A new immigration bill being prepared will also include a fine of nearly $4,000 to be paid by anyone employing an illegal immigrant.

Some observers say the new measures are too harsh, and that the problem could have been avoided if the government had introduced proper measures earlier.

Ordinary people like Eileen, an office secretary, seem to agree. “I feel something needs to be done, because I feel that it’s all a bit too late," she said. "The country is becoming more and more crowded. And I think there needs to be some restriction on who comes into the country.”

Even she admits, however, that finding the most appropriate level of response could be difficult.