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U.K.: Fortress Britain Set to Halve Number Of New Asylum-Seekers

Every year, thousands of people flee their homes in the world's poorest or most troubled countries in search of a better life in Europe. For many, it's an expensive and hazardous journey -- and one that is about to get even harder in Britain. The U.K. plans by September to cut in half the number of asylum-seekers it allows into the country. The government has also proposed creating United Nations refugee "safe havens" in places like Ukraine and Morocco to help stem the flow.

Prague, 14 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Chekina won't reveal his real name or say too much about why he fled to Britain from his home in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But he says his choice was clear -- to leave, or to stay and risk being killed.

"We had serious problems with the government because I was a student [activist] and we were involved in a matter in which two of our fellow students were killed. There was a group of priests who helped me flee from my country and the one who prepared everything arranged everything so I could just come to Britain. It wasn't my own decision, I had never planned in my life to come to Britain. If I go back home I will just be killed. From the airport I will just be kidnapped and taken somewhere and my life will end there. To go back to my country -- that would be my death."

Chekina is one of the tens of thousands of people who arrived in Britain last year to seek asylum. They come from some of the world's poorest or most troubled countries. Afghans, Iraqis, Zimbabweans, and Somalis arrive in the greatest numbers, and they also have the best chance of being allowed to stay.

But the process is about to get harder. The number of people seeking asylum in Britain last year is believed to have surpassed 100,000 for the first time. It's an alarming figure for many Brits. They fear their country is being abused by "bogus" asylum-seekers -- economic migrants in search of generous state benefits, not people fleeing political persecution.

So earlier this month, Prime Minister Tony Blair said he wants the numbers cut in half by September.

To that end, the government has moved seven, mostly Eastern European, nations to a list of "safe countries" from which claims will be rejected. Those countries are Albania, Bulgaria, Jamaica, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, and the state of Serbia and Montenegro.

It is also proposing to set up United Nations "safe havens," or refugee protection centers, in places like Ukraine, Turkey, and Morocco. The idea is to keep refugees close to their home region while their claims are evaluated. The lucky ones would then trickle out to European countries -- including Britain -- under a "burden-sharing" system calculated in proportion to each country's population.

Response to the "safe haven" proposal has been mixed. Some advocacy groups say it could be a good idea as long as it guarantees the refugees' security.

Blair discussed the idea early this week with Ruud Lubbers, the head of the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. A UNHCR spokesman said the idea has positive elements, but that the agency is concerned the proposal will evolve into burden-shifting, rather than sharing.

Some critics dispute whether Britain has a problem with asylum-seekers at all. Michael Collyer, a migration expert at the UK's Sussex University, says the world has millions of refugees -- and that only a tiny fraction reach Britain. And of those, less than half are granted refugee status or allowed to stay on humanitarian grounds.

"If it's possible to step back and look at the issue with less passion, then certainly 100,000 isn't a particularly large number of people," Collyer said. "And of the 40,000 or so of those who will have a permanent right to remain in Britain, it's a very small number, really. So I certainly think Britain could cope."

One of those who has been granted asylum is student Ibrahim Dogus. He was 11 in 1991 when his father left Turkey, where he had come under severe abuse for supporting greater rights for Kurds.

"[My father] was arrested, tortured, and beaten up by the police and the military," Dogus said. "And our house was attacked many times; they raided our house at least four times. And there was no chance for him to stay in Turkey any more and so he left for Britain. It was not a decision to come to Britain, it was luck. He just got on a plane, he didn't know where he was going. The idea in his mind was to get away from Turkey to a safer place and he ended up in Britain. We came because he was here and he was granted asylum."

Dogus is more fortunate than most. Many others are simply sent back home.

Sussex University professor Collyer says he met a young man at a Red Cross camp in France (Sangatte) who fled Algeria after several members of his family were killed.

A few months later, Collyer went to a detention center near London to interview immigrants who were about to be deported. There he saw the same Algerian he had met in France: "He [had been] cycling his bike and went through a red light, and so the police pulled him over and checked whether he had papers. It's not that he'd done anything wrong -- apart from a minor traffic offense, obviously. But because of this they checked up on his situation and put him in detention and were going to send him back to Algeria. So as far as I know, he was sent back. That's one of the situations that touched me the most because I met him twice, completely by accident, and he was a very cheery optimistic guy when I first met him and very different the second time I met him."

Britain will need international approval before its "safe havens" idea will get off the ground.

But with or without them, Britain is determined to see its number of new asylum claims drop by half. Blair said this week he has made a "firm commitment" to it.