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Refugees

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:11 pm on 18th June 2002.

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Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 9:11 pm, 18th June 2002

My Lords, I genuinely want to thank the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, for initiating this debate and for the thoughtful and sober tone in which it has been conducted. It is well timed as a prelude to some of our other discussions next week. Its timing as regards Refugee Week could not be better.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, challenged me to speak positively about immigration and asylum. I am well pleased to do so, particularly in Refugee Week. Immigrants have made a remarkable contribution to this country. We are a nation of immigrants and anyone who thinks otherwise does not know our history. Similarly, although not perfect, our record as a nation for taking in asylum seekers who have been in dire circumstances, such as the Huguenots and a sequence of cases in the past century, has been very good generally and it is something of which we should be rightly proud and from which we should not seek to resile.

As noble Lords have clearly put it, the problem is not whether we should in any way compromise our stance on our responsibility to refugees or the refugee convention of1951, but how one faces the fact that there is mass pressure, because of global wealth inequalities, for economic migration which is putting enormous pressure on the system and that people are using the asylum route to try to enter the country to better themselves, for understandable reasons. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, spoke clearly, powerfully and accurately on that.

As noble Lords know, the Government's strategy is to seek not to resile for a moment from our commitment in the 1951 Geneva Convention, although this debate has illustrated the importance of the review of that convention 50 years later. It was designed for a different world and although its principles and tenets are still sound, its mechanisms are open to question.

The importance of managed migration has been slightly underplayed. The Government have clearly stated that attracting a variety of workers to this country is to be welcomed. A variety of schemes that contribute to their personal wealth and to our economic wealth are to be celebrated, welcomed and managed.

We clearly need to rise to the enormous challenge of how to sustain the principles of fairness, of fair hearings, of appeals, and of giving welfare support to people who claim asylum when they may have been economic migrants. We also need to ensure that everyone is given a fair hearing, as the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, said. That raises an enormous challenge, given the volumes being faced, and not to face up to that will not do justice to the reality of the situation.

The interesting challenge that Jack Straw faced in his speech about two years ago was to look more effectively at what is happening to migration, how it is putting almost unsustainable pressures on the conventional method of handling asylum claimants and how all countries in Europe and elsewhere in the world are struggling to balance those two forces that operate at the same time.

The desire to establish a quota resettlement programme should enable refugees to travel safely to the UK. Therefore, as many noble Lords have said, that is to be welcomed in principle. The then Home Secretary set out how we would seek to evolve such a scheme. It is an important humanitarian tool and clearly in the past we have had a recognition of a moral responsibility to make contributions to major crises in the world and to seek to play our part fully.

I am pleased to recognise that the EU is examining the feasibility of introducing a Europe-wide scheme. Last week I was in Luxembourg and listened to a commissioner speaking about his commitment to explore that. It will not be simple and it will not be quick, but it has common sense. If genuine refugees want to come into Europe one has to consider whether it is possible to ensure that there are some common principles and processes that evaluate them and a reasonably equal distribution of responsibility for handling them. Those words are easy to say but I would be deluding the House if I said that fulfilling them in practice could be done within two or three years. I do not believe that we should run away from that as a goal because the fact that some countries take more, as we do, because they have a well-developed system of welfare and legal support, appears not be a sensible way to proceed in the long term.

Therefore, building on the speech of Jack Straw, we want to expand the provisions of resettlement from some of our relatively smaller, informal schemes—the mandate refugee programme and the 10 or more plans. I have spoken previously about mass resettlements to the UK and I do not need to repeat the details of 300,000 Poles, or the quarter of a million plus Ugandan Asians, or the Chileans, the Vietnamese, the Bosnians or the Kosovans who have come here.

I hope that this country will always respond to such crises with an open generosity, as we have in the past. I hope that the spirit of the nation will recognise that we have responsibilities to support genuine refugees who are in crisis through no fault of their own. But I do not believe that we would be wise to consider that it is axiomatic or that it is automatic if governments are seen as being out of control on how they address economic migration which comes through the refugee door. It is naive to pretend that there is not a serious problem facing the liberalism of many European countries in the face of those pressures.

If we have any doubt on that, the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, spoke with his usual blunt wisdom and fairly trenchantly about some of the realities. Many European countries are faced with gangs of international criminals who seek to do well out of the relative, if not the worst, poverty of some people. Many people who present themselves as refugees have come through those criminal networks. That does not automatically mean that they are not genuine asylum seekers, but they are people who have paid £10,000 or £15,000 to get into this country. In many cases they have been advised to tear up their documents and advised on how best to play the system.

That does not mean that Britain should not address her responsibilities for treating them fairly, give support and sustenance when they have made a claim and consider how to do that efficiently. We also have to be able to process those claims effectively, rapidly and fairly. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, that we should try to achieve a higher success rate at returning those who are not genuine refugees.

The facts are not usually well publicised, but perhaps I may give our latest figures. About 70,000 or 80,000 asylum claimants enter Britain each year. Of those, about 11 per cent are granted asylum after they have been through a usually sophisticated and thorough appeals system with legal aid rightly paid for by the British taxpayer. About another 12 per cent are given exceptional leave to remain. Noble Lords will know broadly what that means without my going into detail.

So some 23 per cent of claimants come through the system as genuine asylum seekers. Yet there is great difficulty returning the rest to their countries of origin for a variety of reasons that I shall not go into now. We are trying to improve our success factors. The problem is that if you have paid £10,000 or £15,000 to a gangmaster to try to get you into the country, you have taken a gamble, but if you find that your success rate is likely to be high, because people play the system and it is difficult for us to return them, it makes it extremely difficult for us to refute the argument that it is money well spent. Therefore, we must face up to the realities of what is going on out there in the real world, while at the same time not reneging on the values and principles we hold dear and on which this country has built its—I hope—proud history.

Unusually, I disagree with my noble friend Lord Judd on this issue. I believe that the public is tolerant of genuine refugees and I hope it will continue to be so. We should not assume that it will continue to be so if we fail to manage the economic migrant who wants to get in at the same time. I do not believe that the public are as tolerant of economic migration, nor is there support in the country for an open-door policy; nor do I hear any noble Lord arguing for it.

The challenge is to manage the short-term crisis while recognising the global forces at work. Noble Lords have pointed out that the people with whom we deal as asylum seekers may not be the most needy. Logic says that that is the case, because unless you can finance your route through that network you are not able to present. That is why UNHCR's programme, although small-scale at this stage, is important.

I shall have to race now because I am being encouraged to be brief. We are committed to rolling out these provisions as soon as we can. UNHCR is advising us not to go too quickly; to get the system right and to ensure that it is not another route to profiteering and criminality; to ensure that it works well and that we can therefore build credibility on it. There is also, as ever, the realistic touch of ensuring we have the funding through the CSR 2002 process. I hope that we are able to launch this scheme and that we are able to start the consultation with NGOs this summer.

It is a major issue to ensure more collective processes for dealing with genuine refugees sourced in-country, and to deal with the problem on a more collective basis across the world. While we should do our part—and we shall do our part on pioneering the scheme, as may the EU—we cannot pretend that we can do so in isolation. Such a system can be operated only if over time we can persuade a significant number of countries that this is a responsible and moral way of addressing the issue. Some countries are already there: the United States and Australia already use such measures.

There is a balance between experimenting and being Pollyanna-ish and thinking that in some way we will have such a system in two to three years' time—we will not, even though it is right to pursue and explore that approach positively. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, that this scheme should not be seen as in any way undermining genuine refugees who come to us by other means.

How do we address global economic inequalities? We know at heart that that is what drives some, if not all, of the economic migration that is such a problem to us. While I disagree by thinking that we should take into account and re-house people whose economic plight is severe, I do not believe that that is realistic in terms of the nation that we are: we are not Canada, nor are we Australia. We are a small nation. We cannot just open the door to everyone who is poor. Indeed, arguably, it is not the most efficient way of doing so. We must have more realistic ways of addressing wealth development in the countries from where the migration is coming.

Therefore, the UNHCR's global consultation on the 1951 convention on refugees has called on states, NGOs and international bodies to take concerted action at all levels to solve protracted refugee situations, and to look at how we stabilise governance, legal systems, and put in place better prospects for economic growth in those countries. Again, we must not fool ourselves that this will be quick. However, it is an essential part of dealing responsibly with economic migration that comes to us in the form of asylum seeking.

I was also asked about the EU High Level Working Group, which is developing a voluntary return programme to Afghanistan to encourage return and to help in the reconstruction of the country. The UNHCR was consulted when this plan was developed, and it is projected that 200 returns could well go forward when it is considered safe to do so. At present, there are also action plans developed for Iraq, Morocco, Albania, Somalia and Sri Lanka. It is in our interests at least to see whether we can pilot some of those collective mechanisms and resettlement programmes through the EU mechanism, which is slightly smaller, rather than seeking initially to obtain instant action on a global basis. If my recent experience is anything to go by, it does not always seem too simple in the European Union.

DfID has a clear role to play in this process. The department is undertaking a considerable amount of work in terms of refugee camps and as regards its wider programme of work on economic development. Regrettably, time will not allow me to say more than that this evening.

I turn, finally, to managed migration. I hope that I have made it clear that this is an important part of our policy. We realise that we should be welcoming migrants who can make a contribution, and that we should do so without weakening the economies or societies of fragile countries because that would be irresponsible. Yes, the number of work permits that we have issued has, for example, doubled since 1998. I cannot give a forecast as to how many there will be in the future; that will depend on the demand that is made from employers in the United Kingdom. However, I would expect the number to continue to rise—so it should, if there are needs that we cannot source locally.

In conclusion, I warmly thank the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, for initiating this debate. It has given us a good opportunity to focus some initial consideration at a wider level on the forces that are at work, before we get into the important detail of scrutinising the Government's Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill.