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Refugees

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:04 pm on 18th June 2002.

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Photo of Lord Dixon-Smith Lord Dixon-Smith Conservative 9:04 pm, 18th June 2002

My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, has every right to feel pleased with the debate today. The subject is topical. It is a difficult subject which fits with my philosophy of life: an endless Grand National. Every time you cross a fence there is another one before you; and when you cross that there is another one. And when we are all gone, our successors will be crossing those fences all over again.

I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Taylor of Warwick and the noble Lord, Lord Chan, who in completely different ways put in clear perspective the great benefit this country has gained in the past from migrants. As I am sure do other Member of this House, I know many people who are members of families who years ago would have been refugees and who now regard themselves as British and nothing but British because they are a part of our society. One sees them in academic fields, across the world of business, throughout the arts and so on. Let there be no doubt about the benefits that this country has enjoyed in the past and I have no doubt will continue to enjoy in the future.

However, we need to recognise that there are problems of definition. I have great difficulty in trying to make a distinction between a refugee and an asylum seeker. It seems to me that by definition an asylum seeker is a refugee. The circumstances which have forced a genuine applicant to this country are not voluntary. These are people who through force of circumstances are obliged to leave the country from which they come. Those people should enjoy every sympathy and assistance. I like to think that we are still able to deal with them in that way.

The problem is that the situation is no longer straightforward. The world has changed. In many ways the change is good; in some ways it is bad. The past century has seen an enormous expansion of rich people in the world. We are fortunate in this country to be able to include ourselves in that category. The reciprocal of that has been an enormous expansion in poverty in the world. I believe that will always be a problem that we have to face. In any event, poverty is a relative term. What is meant by poverty in this country would be seen in many other countries of the world as extreme riches. We need to bear that in mind.

The fact of the matter is that, of those trying to enter this country today, there are many very genuine and real refugees who deserve asylum, but regrettably at the present time, and partly because of the change that has taken place in global transport systems and other aspects of globalisation, there are many people who are not genuine applicants. Indeed, the Government are doing sterling work in trying to sort out the real from the unreal, if I may put it that way. Their research seems to suggest—taking the present level of asylum seekers at about 80,000 a year—that about 10,000 are genuine applicants and the rest should return.

We have a problem because the vast majority who ought to be returned, regrettably, are not being sent back. That is really muddying the pond, if I may use a very blunt phrase in the vernacular. The Bill which the Government are going to bring before us in the near future is designed to help. If we build the three asylum reception centres which are now spoken about, with a total capacity of 3,000, they will not be functioning in much less than two years. On the current government targets there will be a throughput of about 6,000 refugees a year, with the intention of dealing with them in six months.

There is a total input into this country of 80,000 refugees a year, so processing 6,000 is playing with the problem. If we have 14 centres I acknowledge that we will do rather better. But if we are going to sort out this problem in the interests of this country and of the refugees who genuinely need help, we need a far greater concentration on producing results through the system than any suggestion I have yet seen coming from the Government for tackling this issue. To make a real dent in the problem we need to deal with these people in six weeks and not six months.

Returning to the question of managed migration, only when we have solved the present crisis will we be able to deal properly with that question. The noble Lord, Lord Chan, touched on another very fundamental issue, which is the ethical difficulty of removing the professional expertise of people from countries where it is desperately needed. This has been a very good debate and I look forward to the Minister's reply.