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U.K.: Britain Coming To Terms With Record Number Of Asylum Seekers In 2002

The issue of immigration is one of the most important domestic policy concerns in Britain. Home Secretary David Blunkett says the number of people seeking asylum in the United Kingdom reached a record of almost 111,000 in 2002. At the same time, however, census figures show that -- with the exception of London and a few other cities -- immigrants still represent a very low percentage of Britain's total population of nearly 60 million. RFE/RL correspondent Jan Jun reports from London.

London, 10 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Public opinion polls show that immigration is one of the biggest political issues in Britain, second only to the crisis in Iraq.

Home Secretary (Interior Minister) David Blunkett recently announced a 20 percent increase in asylum applications last year. The annual cost to the British government to care for asylum seekers is some $2.9 billion.

Prime Minister Tony Blair is promising to halve the number of asylum seekers by September, and the number of applications already appears to be decreasing. The Home Office says the peak came last October, when some 9,000 people applied for asylum in Britain. Blunkett says the numbers have been falling ever since: "All I can say is that there has been -- from the anecdotal evidence provided to us from the immigration service and the pressures on it -- a further substantial reduction."

He said almost 15,000 asylum seekers from Iraq and some 7,700 from Zimbabwe accounted for nearly all of the increase over 2001. In addition, almost 7,400 asylum seekers arrived from Afghanistan and 6,700 from Somalia. The migrant center near Sangatte in France was also responsible for a large number of asylum seekers.

Blunkett said only 10 percent of applicants were actually granted asylum in 2002. He said various new measures are being introduced to speed up deportations of asylum seekers whose applications are rejected.

The British government has said that claims will automatically be rejected from seven so-called "safe countries." They are: Albania, Bulgaria, Jamaica, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, and Serbia and Montenegro. It is also proposing that refugee protection centers, administered by the United Nations, be set up in places such as Ukraine, Turkey, and Morocco.

David Cameron is a conservative member of parliament and a member of the Home Affairs Committee. He tells RFE/RL that immigration is an expensive problem: "Asylum figures for the United Kingdom make very depressing reading. What we are seeing at the end of the process of working out who is a genuine asylum seeker and who is not, we are left with a figure of about 10,000 people -- so one in 10 who are actually granted asylum. For the remainder, a very small number of those actually ever get removed from the United Kingdom. And the whole system of asylum support and court cases and appeals and appeals of appeals is now costing U.K. taxpayers somewhere in the region of 2 billion pounds ($3.2 billion) a year."

A recent poll in "The Times" daily showed that 88 percent of Britons feel that the number of asylum seekers has become a serious problem. The poll found that while the majority of the British public accepts the principle of asylum, it believes Britain has accepted its fair share and cannot accept anymore.

Another British newspaper, the "Daily Express," stated in a recent editorial: "It is clear that the government has not the faintest idea how to stem the flow of asylum seekers, let alone how to deal with them once they are here." The paper suggested that this lack of a clear vision was confirmed by a recent High Court ruling that labeled one of the Home Office's new, stricter rules on asylum application in breach of the European Union's Human Rights Convention.

What is making the problem even worse, according to a recent pronouncement by High Court Judge Maurice Kay, is that some lawyers are encouraging their asylum-seeking clients to appeal their rejections and claim government money for so-called "legal aid," the cost of which has lately soared.

Popular discontent over immigration was illustrated by the recent public protest against a government plan to turn a former air base into an asylum center in the small British town of Lee-on-Solent. Some 8,000 local residents marched in protest to the plan. Parliamentarian David Cameron said: "So we have got a system that is clearly not working, a system with huge delays and backlogs that seems to me to be unfair on everybody. It is unfair on the genuine asylum seeker that is fleeing torture and persecution. They are caught up in this great big hullabaloo. It is unfair on those that are trying legally to immigrate to the United Kingdom because the nongenuine asylum seekers are effectively jumping the queue. And it is unfair on the British taxpayer that is paying for a system at the cost of 2 billion pounds ($3.2 billion) that is clearly broken down."

Another cause for concern is the fact that many immigrants manage to enter Britain illegally. A recent report in the "Daily Mirror" newspaper claimed that as many as 150 people a day enter the country this way and then vanish, mostly into large cities.

At the same time, however, results of Britain's 2001 census, published last month, indicate that Britain can accommodate a regular flow of refugees well into the future without its current racial and religious mix being seriously affected.

The census figures show that almost 8 percent of the U.K.'s overall population is made up of people with African and Asian roots. More than 54 million people described themselves as white.

The main religion is still Christianity at 71 percent, followed by Islam at just over 3 percent and Hinduism at 1.1 percent.

The government says some legal immigration is needed in order to maintain the ratio between employed people and the rising percentage of retirees.