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U.K.: Asylum Policy Under Fire As Report Warns Of 'Social Unrest'

Britain's crisis over asylum-seekers has erupted again. Debate gripped the country in February following a Home Office (Interior Ministry) announcement that the number of asylum-seekers had reached almost 111,000, a record. The debate has been reopened following the release of a long-awaited parliamentary report that criticizes the government for its handling of asylum policy. It warns of "social unrest" if the policy is not changed.

London, 12 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The influx of asylum-seekers into Britain, if allowed to continue unchecked, could spark social unrest by overwhelming the capacity of the nation to cope.

This is one of the findings in a long-awaited report by the influential, cross-party Home Affairs Select Committee of the British Parliament.

The report, which is causing a strong reaction in the country's media, points out that the number of asylum-seekers in Britain has risen from about 4,200 in 1982 to almost 111,000 in 2002 -- the most in the European Union. The report, which was released on 8 May, calls such numbers "unacceptable."

Oliver Letwin, a home affairs spokesman for the opposition Conservative Party, called the report a "damning indictment of a system in chaos." He recommended a quota system be put in place.

Bob Russell is a Liberal Democratic member of Parliament's Home Affairs Committee. In an interview with RFE/RL, Russell said the committee unanimously feels that asylum seekers should be treated as individuals, not as numbers, and recognizes there are many people who are legitimately seeking asylum in Britain. But he added: "Also seeking entry and remaining here when they've lost all their appeals to be here are people who for want of a better description are called 'economic migrants' -- and they have no status and no legality to be in this country. And the view of the Home Affairs Select Committee is that measures need to be taken for these people to be returned to their country of origin, in order that those who have a legitimate reason to be here are not bracketed with them."

The report also states that the government's targets for removing such "economic migrants" are unrealistic and raise false expectations. The report says: "We are at a loss to understand the basis for a belief that a target of 30,000 removals was achievable, and ministerial pronouncements on the subject are obscure."

The report suggests, however, that these economic migrants should not be left without means of taking care of themselves before deportation. It recommends they be allowed to find temporary work and receive a "modest allowance" to help them start again in their countries of origin.

The report also criticizes as "morally unacceptable" efforts to cut government benefits to deter asylum seekers.

The report concludes that the increase in asylum seekers could also lead to a "growing political backlash which will, in turn, lead to the election of extremist parties with extreme solutions."

There are signs, the report says, that this may be already the case.

The anti-immigration British National Party (BNP) gained 16 seats -- out of more than 10,000 at stake -- in local elections last week. In the northern town of Burnley, notable for being a culturally mixed community, the BNP now has seven councillors, which makes it the second-strongest party there. The city was the scene of race riots in 2001.

Russell points out, however, that these tendencies should not be overestimated:

"It is, I believe, an acceptable statement that in some parts of the country, where there has been a large number of asylum-seekers who have then been deemed not to qualify under the various rules and international regulations and so on, who should not be there and have then not returned to their country of origin, that is where this social unrest might then occur. Not that it would, but it might," he said.

Russell admits he is unhappy about recent election trends and that democratic parties must be aware of what is happening: "All democrats must be very concerned at what the BNP has done in Birmingham and one or two other places. But in the context of many thousands of councillors, a dozen or so [being elected], we must not take it out of context. But we need to be wary of it, we need to be alert to it. And all democrats need to take stock of the situation and try to remove the concerns which have caused people to vote for a neofascist party."

The accommodation of asylum seekers is an issue that is causing some resentment among the British public. The Home Office pays local authorities up to 490 euros a week per flat for providing asylum-seekers with lodgings while they await acceptance or rejection of their applications. The influx has already clogged local councils' housing systems, and they have had to turn to private property owners.

In a report last week, the "Evening Standard" daily highlighted the case of one property owner who has allegedly been earning 2.8 million euros a year from renting rooms to local councils.

The Home Affairs Select Committee called on Immigration Minister Beverly Hughes to provide a government answer to the report. She expressed satisfaction with the committee's recognition that the issue has "no simple, overnight solutions." She promised to clear the backlog of new asylum applications within a year. Some commentators regard that as a risky pledge that could cost her job.

Hughes did not mention an earlier pledge by British Prime Minister Tony Blair to halve the number of asylum seekers by September.

It remains to be seen whether the government will try to establish "clearing centers" for asylum-seekers, where they would wait until their applications are processed. These centers could be located in countries outside the European Union -- Albania or Ukraine, for example.

Some analysts suggest the findings of the Home Affairs Select Committee report will spur the British government to start negotiating such a deal.