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Refugees

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:48 pm on 18th June 2002.

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Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Labour 8:48 pm, 18th June 2002

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, on introducing the debate. It has been fascinating listening to so many experts in this field. I am not an expert on immigration. I became interested in the subject as a result of the problems of what might be called clandestines, asylum seekers or illegal immigrants that arise at Calais with regard to Channel Tunnel rail freight. I am afraid that I have on occasions bored your Lordships with that subject. I declare an interest as chairman of the Rail Freight Group.

Progress has been made as regards Channel Tunnel rail freight after the French elections and there are grounds for hope for rail freight. However, I have concerns about the effect on genuine refugees which I should like to explore. The biggest problem at Calais, and that with the highest profile, has been caused by those who might be called economic migrants who are generally organised by gangs who arrange their passage flexibly and fast. They encourage their "customers" to seek out any chink in the armour surrounding the British Isles, usually at a cost of several thousand pounds. The migrants are told to tear up any documentation or identification they have on the way across so that they cannot immediately be returned to France under the terms of the Dublin Convention. Most of them have the phone number of a human rights lawyer and one or two are actually accompanied by them in case they get into any trouble. Of course, as your Lordships know, many hundreds enter the country every week. That has had a disastrous effect on Channel Tunnel rail freight, but one should not forget the appalling effect that it has also had on the communities around Calais, Folkestone and Dover.

My concern is that the welcome attempt of the two Governments to deal with the problem may not take into account sufficiently the needs of the genuine asylum seeker. I am no great expert on the business of seeking asylum under the Geneva Convention, but I have listened with interest to many debates in your Lordships' House. However, I do not believe that many such asylum seekers have the money to pay gangs several thousand pounds to come here or that they have a friendly British Embassy in which they can claim asylum and not be attacked on their way out. Can one imagine that occurring in Harare recently if someone had happened to oppose Mr Mugabe? The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has just given us some moving examples of such cases in other countries. Those people would probably be beaten up if they got out at all.

My question is: realistically how can people apply for asylum without entering this country apparently illegally? My concern is that, by stopping the economic migrants, which, to a large extent, I consider to be necessary, the genuine asylum seekers will not be able to enter the country and will not know how to do so. I believe that there needs to be a more equitable process for fulfilling our humanitarian and legal obligations in relation to this category of people while keeping out those whom we may not want.

One suggestion would be to arrange some type of processing in a third, safe, country, which, in my limited experience, might be France. It does not have to take place at Sangatte; it could occur elsewhere. But I hope that at least there would be a way of dealing with people fairly and humanely and without taking too long about it. As the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, said, they are not supplicants or beggars, and I believe that we need to deal with them humanely.

We need a flexible policy which is capable of dealing with the ever-changing ruses of these human traffickers—and they do change frequently. If the problems relating to the Channel Tunnel and rail freight are sorted out, we should not expect the asylum seekers to go away. They will go to the next port up and down the Continent and will enter the country a different way. That must be tackled in a humane way while making it reasonably easy and practical for genuine asylum seekers to be treated fairly and speedily and to be allowed in.

Where managed migration comes into this, I am not sure, but I hope that it will not be done on a cost-benefit basis. There is a need to allow asylum seekers to be processed in a place where they are not constantly being attacked and in a manner in which they do not have to try to enter this country illegally.