HC Deb 26 November 1990 vol 181 cc716-24

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Sackville.]

10.25 pm
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

I am pleased that I have been able to secure an Adjournment debate on the treatment of asylum seekers when they arrive in the United Kingdom. This extremely important matter is not necessarily overwhelmingly popular and does not always grasp front-page headlines daily. The principles involved must be addressed, partly because Britain has not been invaded over the past 1,000 years and partly because few people from this country have ever sought political asylum abroad—as far as I am aware, not since the days of religious persecution hundreds of years ago. However, there is a popular understanding of the need for people to be able to seek political asylum when their survival is in danger. The most recent examples relate to the horrors faced by the Jewish people who fled from the Nazi regime in Germany in the 1930s and sought asylum. Some succeeded in getting asylum in this country, but tragically many found that the doors of the rest of the world were barred in their search for safety.

I have introduced the debate at this time because of a series of extremely disturbing reports in the press at the end of October and at the beginning of this month that the United Kingdom Government were undertaking a review of their procedures to deal with asylum seekers. I read those reports with some disquiet. Since I have become a Member, I have spent a lot of time dealing with the problems of asylum seekers from many countries, including Iran, Iraq, Chile, Colombia and a number of Asian countries, particularly Sri Lanka and China. Many of the people involved went through horrific experiences to get to safety.

The 1951 Geneva convention, which is the major article of faith dealing with asylum seekers, was signed after the war to cover the large numbers who sought political asylum from Nazi Germany before the war and immediately after it because of all the disruptions throughout Europe. The convention states that people seeking political asylum must have a well-founded fear of being persecuted. Obviously, that is open to wide definition. It does not have to mean that people were politically active before a hostile regime took over. It could mean that they were in danger of being persecuted by association. Many of the people with whom I have dealt and who came from Chile after the fascist regime took over in 1973 were politically active in socialist, communist or other parties and were in danger of persecution if they returned to Chile, as were their relatives and friends. The same applies to Kurdish people from several countries. The definition must be drawn fairly widely.

The British Government have claimed that many people seek political asylum in Britain. According to a parliamentary answer by the Home Office at columns 452–53 of Hansard of 30 October, 27,170 people are seeking political asylum. Of the European countries, the largest number comes from Turkey, with 1,690; of the African countries, the largest number come from Somalia, with 2,990; and of the Asian countries, the largest number come from Sri Lanka, with 4,950.

Those people have come to this country because they believe themselves to be in some danger. It is important that someone who arrives in this country seeking political asylum should be sure, first, that his application will be properly received at the port of entry; secondly, that he will be interviewed in his own language; and, thirdly, that he will not be removed from this country until the application has been properly assessed and a decision taken.

There have been criticisms of the Government's system for many years. When I first came to the House, the Government used to use, as a defence for the lack of an appeals system against refusals of political asylum, the fact that Members of Parliament could raise cases directly with the Home Office Minister. That right was taken from us when the immigration rules were changed. Now, Members of Parliament have to have new and compelling evidence.

In 1987, an especially disgraceful piece of legislation passed through the House—the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act. Under that Act, a carrier—an airline or a shipping company—can be fined if it brings here someone from a visa country who is not subsequently admitted. The number of visa countries has increased dramatically during the past few years. Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Ghana were added as, later, were the Maghreb countries. The citizens of many countries now require visas for entry to this country. Of course, a visa does not guarantee admission. If a person is not admitted, the carrier not only has to take him back, but has to pay a fine of £ 1,000. More than £18 million has been collected in fines since the Act came into operation.

I find the operation of the Act disturbing. It is a charter for those who wish to exploit the horror of people seeking asylum. I know of cases of Kurdish people fleeing from Turkey and seeking asylum in this country who have paid £1,500 for a one-way air ticket when the normal one-way fare is less than £100. That means that the airline can cover its costs if it is fined.

The Amnesty International report cites examples of people not being allowed off an aircraft to make applications for political asylum and then being removed from this country. Amnesty International presented to the Government 33 recommendations for changes in the treatment of asylum applications. It is concerned that people have been wrongly expelled, and gives a figure of 100. It is interesting that in his reply to that, the Home Office Minister admitted that a number of Kurdish asylum seekers from Turkey had been wrongly deported in 1989 and that Sri Lankan Tamils had been deported.

There are a number of recommendations in the report, but the most important is the right of appeal for an asylum seeker. Under the current arrangements, someone arrives in this country having fled the horrors of a civil war and persecution—for example, the civil wars in Somalia and Ethiopia. It is a major and traumatic move to seek asylum abroad. None of us would ever want to have to do it, but it is happening to many people. Their application is processed, but there is no tight of appeal other than seeking a judicial review under the rules of natural justice. That is a major error in our procedure. Other countries have an appeals system, and we should also have one.

I am concerned that the current Home Office review on asylum seeking is designed not to improve the system in line with the spirit of the 1951 Geneva convention, but to make the position worse. I noted that in his letter to The Guardian, and in his speech at the time of the Amnesty International report, the Minister kept saying that there was a link between economic migrants and people seeking political asylum. It is a little unwise of the Minister to take such a broad-brush approach to the serious problem of people seeking asylum. Cases must be dealt with individually, with great care and in great detail.

Often, people seeking political asylum are from areas of great conflict in which the British Government themselves are not exactly uninvolved. The continuous supply of arms to the Gulf and to Sri Lanka fuelled the problems in those places, and in many others. We look to the British Government not to tighten up on political asylum but to understand its causes, and for some co-ordination of departmental responses, which are currently totally insufficient.

There is no proper appeals system, and there should be. The refugee arrivals project does its best, but it is understaffed and has great difficulty providing an adequate service. Time and time again, I and other hon. Members have had to intervene to ensure that a case is properly dealt with and heard.

I ask the Government to consider a number of other factors. When people seeking political asylum are admitted to this country and leave the airport, or are finally granted right of asylum or exceptional leave to remain here, they need a roof over their head and their children require education. Kurdish asylum seekers arrived here is considerable numbers from Turkey in 1989, because of the persecution that they were suffering, and others were the victims of gas attacks in Iraq, when Saddam Hussein decided to use that form of warfare against the Kurds in northern Iraq. They all arrived here with absolutely nothing, and needed support and help.

Local authorities are obliged by law, rightly, to house those people whom they consider to be vulnerable. It is expensive to do that, and central Government resources should be made available to assist local authorities in meeting their responsibilities. Government money has been made available in small measure in respect of Kurdish asylum seekers, but under the Bellwin top-up scheme, insufficient resources are available because the local authority must make the initial input.

There are also a disturbing number of cases of unaccompanied children arriving in this country, mainly from East Africa—Eritrea and Somalia. Those children come here because their parents have gone missing or have been killed in the civil war, and clearly they are very disturbed. In the name of humanity, those poor children should be given the best possible help and support after the horror that they have been through.

We find instead that some borough councils refuse to deal with those cases under the Children Act 1989, and the children are passed from one place to another in a disturbing and awful way. The Churches and voluntary organisation have done a great deal of work, but responsibility for providing the necessary assistance remains with central Government. It is very expensive to keep children in care. It is not the ideal way of looking after them, but they should receive that immediate initial support.

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

The House is indebted to my hon. Friend for raising this matter, but does he agree that it is only one of the issues affecting the immigration and nationality department under the present Government? Did he read the report published last week, which showed that Lunar house is dealing with naturalisation cases at the rate of only 28 a month? If that trend continues, it will clear the backlog only by the end of the next century. Does my hon. Friend agree that there should not only be an inquiry into the way in which Lunar house is currently operating, but a full debate in Government time on that very important issue?

Mr. Corbyn

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter because it is important.

I have been trying to describe the problems of those who seek political asylum, the emotional trauma and disturbance that leads up to their search for asylum, and the problems when they arrive. We are not dealing with a group of people who are not highly motivated—quite the contrary. Often people who seek political asylum are extremely highly motivated, and they find it distressing that, having arrived here and made an application for political asylum, it takes a long time to determine the outcome.

Usually the terms of temporary admission or exceptional leave to remain in this country preclude those people from following any gainful employment, and often any form of education. They are in a different limbo land. Understandably they are very upset about it. The last thing that they want is to be a burden upon the rest of the community. They want to make the most positive contribution. Therefore, the speed of the decision is extremely important. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) is quite right to draw attention to that fact. I understand that he has been to Lunar house, and has examined the piles of mail sacks that are waiting to be opened there.

There is a social security element to the problem. For some reason that no Minister has ever been able to explain to me or convince me of, people seeking political asylum are eligible for only 90 per cent. of income support. That is blatantly discriminatory. If someone is entitled to income support, he should get 100 per cent. and not 90 per cent. Likewise, the social fund should operate evenly, whether for people seeking asylum or for those who are entitled to access to it under the normal procedure. People seeking political asylum are increasingly being forced to fall back upon those from their own country who have already gained residence or asylum here. That is not a sensible or fair way to carry on.

There is also a European dimension to the problem, because in 1992 the relationship between Britain and the Common Market countries will change. Various groups—the Trevi group, of which Britain is a member, and the Schengen group, are meeting in secret and, as I understand it, are not reporting to anybody. They are coming to all sorts of conclusions and decisions about asylum seekers and about the attitude and policy that will be taken throughout Europe. I understand that, from 1992 onwards, far from a social Europe that is concerned with people seeking political asylum from tensions, dramas and wars, there will be a fortress Europe approach with insufficient recognition and support being given to such people.

I raised this subject because it is very serious. People in this country often find it hard to understand trauma suffered by those fleeing from civil commotion and disturbance. I spend a lot of time talking to those who have sought political asylum. To understand, one must try to put oneself in the place of someone who is living a normal life—reaching middle age, with both children in school and both partners have a reasonable job. Suddenly, everything goes. The Government change. Those people become the focus of persecution, and have to leave the country that they have lived in all their lives. They have to seek a new life abroad. It is a frightening experience for them. Many of them do not wish to do it.

First, it is important that we recognise the causes of inhuman government and regimes, which allow persecution of people for their religious beliefs, social customs, languages or political views. Secondly, we must recognise that, as signatories of the 1951 Geneva convention, we have a very important role to play.

I hope that in the Government's review of that policy, they will not narrow the focus and curtail the rights of asylum seekers. I hope that instead they will recognise that there is a need for the right of appeal against the refusal of political asylum, and that there is a need for co-ordination among Government Departments, so that housing, education and children's needs are considered and so that we have a civilised policy for the future, rather than the extremely mean policy at the moment, which seeks to put the blame on the asylum seeker, rather than on the regime that has forced those poor people to seek ayslum in the first place.

10.43 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peter Lloyd)

The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) spoke with considerable feeling. No one who knows him doubts his commitment to the cause of refugees. I certainly do not. The difference between us lies in our analysis of the present problems and the nature of some, although not all, of the solutions required.

The United Kingdom has international humanitarian obligations, which have been recognised by all Governments since the war, both Labour and Conservative—not least our obligations under the 1951 United Nations convention. We take them very seriously and alas, there are many people who have only too genuine a reason to fear persecution. However, many people who do not hold such fears claim asylum in the United Kingdom, so it is necessary to distinguish between them.

This year, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development will devote £60 million to international humanitarian aid, most of which will be of direct benefit to refugees. She will provide £20 million for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—the highest ever United Kingdom contribution and one of the three or four highest of all nations. She will devote a further £40 million in other direct forms of aid, including £2.5 million channelled through British voluntary organisations abroad for grass roots projects helping refugees in Africa; £5 million to the United Nations refugee relief agency; and £5 million to the Red Cross. We shall provide nearly £500,000 for immediate reception arrangements for asylum seekers on the first day or two after they arrive here. The purpose of those funds is not only to provide immediate relief where that is needed, but to address the long-term root causes that create migratory pressures.

The Government's record on the treatment of asylum seekers has been generous. Of 55,000 people who claimed asylum in the United Kingdom between 1979 and 1989, the Government permitted 87 per cent. to stay here. In the same period, we also accepted 21,000 Indo-Chinese refugees.

The hon. Member for Islington, North signally failed to address the dramatic change in the nature of asylum seeking in the past few years that has taken place throughout the western world. Since 1983, when 70,000 applied for asylum in Europe, the number of asylum claimants in Europe has doubled every three years and this year will reach 500,000. In the United Kingdom, the rise has been even more dramatic: the numbers have risen fivefold in two years, from 5,000 a year to 25,000 this year. That is the cause of the present problems and surely all those who comment on those matters should attempt at least to analyse what is happening, and why, before offering solutions.

Migratory pressures have increased for a variety of reasons in recent years, not least because of the cheapness and ease of international air travel. Unsurprisingly, those pressures have searched out the weak points in immigration control, particularly that the lengthy and painstaking procedures for dealing with asylum seekers provide a fairly certain route through the barriers. The result is that as the number of asylum seekers in Europe has risen, the proportion found to be genuinely fleeing persecution has dropped. Last year, it was estimated that 70 per cent. of those seeking asylum in Europe and north America were not refugees within the sense of the United Nations convention, nor had a claim to other humanitarian status. That is not a matter of the Government erecting a higher threshold: the trend has been the same in. all countries, even those where there is a right of appeal to an independent body.

As the determination of asylum claims is so lengthy and time-consuming and most people are able to stay on, it is bound to attract some abuse. How else does one explain why the number of asylum seekers from the new democracies of eastern Europe has not diminished or shrunk, but doubled this year? If the hon. Member for Islington, North can explain that in terms of increased persecution, I should be glad to hear it.

Mr. Corbyn

I cannot explain why the number of asylum seekers has increased, but does the Minister accept that sometimes the problem has been that asylum was granted by an old regime but withdrawn by the new regime? For example, the German Democratic Republic, which no longer exists, granted residence to people from third countries—not asylum, but a sort of laissez passer—which has been withdrawn by the united Germany.

Mr. Lloyd

That may be so, but that does not answer the question why the number of asylum seekers from eastern European countries that have become more respectful of human rights in recent years has increased. It is an unpalatable fact, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, that there is an organised international business; middlemen charge high prices for forged papers and brief applicants on how to submit their claims. Over 60 per cent. of applicants arrive on forged papers, or without papers, having passed them back to middlemen on the aircraft, or having destroyed them.

The simple fact is that asylum seeking has become the main source of primary immigration in Europe during the last two or three years and will account for nearly 500,000 new immigrants this year. Last year, it was some 435,000.

We have, quite rightly, an obligation to give entry to anyone who claims asylum until his or her claim has been established, and it is no surprise that there are consequential problems. We are acutely aware of the increased pressure. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the increased pressure on London local authorities in particular. He will also recognise the increased pressure on the refugee section of the Home Office's immigration and nationality department. He calls for two conflicting steps to be taken at a time of increased pressure: that each case should be looked at thoroughly and individually and that the examination of each case should be speeded up. We are determined to maintain our obligation to look at each case thoroughly and individually, but when the numbers increase fivefold, it is not surprising that the queues lengthen.

We are acutely aware of the increased pressure on the statutory services and voluntary organisations and understand the calls for more resources, particularly in London. We are already providing extra funds to enable the refugee arrivals project and the Refugee Council to give immediate help to asylum seekers who need it until the statutory services take over. I am grateful for the work that they are doing.

We have also agreed to consider whether provision could be made for a short-stay reception centre. Last year, the Department of the Environment made special arrangements for those authorities which received the influx of asylum seekers from Turkey, and last week the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) met representatives of the Association of London Authorities about these questions. He awaits further information from them.

The hon. Member for Islington, North also attended that meeting, at which the ALA put forward a plan to buy 1,250 homes for asylum seekers at a capital cost of £100 million. It argued that that was preferable to the £56 million a year that it now spends on bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I see the logic of that argument.

I make no comment on the proposals, which will be examined by my ministerial colleagues in the Department of the Environment, except to draw one comparison. The cost of £100 million, which the ALA proposes for buying 1,250 homes, is rather more than a quarter of the entire budget of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to help the plight of the 14 to 15 million refugees and displaced persons worldwide. The contrast illustrates the strong belief of the Government, which is precisely in line with that of the UNHCR, that the solution to refugee problems cannot lie in encouraging refugees and asylum seekers to come to the west. It is estimated that $5 billion is now being spent on supporting asylum seekers in the west, the majority of whom are not fleeing persecution.

I see that my time is drawing rapidly to a close. The hon. Gentleman raised a number of points, to which I should like to respond. The best course to take is to write to him. I shall also put the answer that the Home Secretary sent to Amnesty International in reply to the 33 important recommendations that it made, but which we feel are somewhat offbeam, or misunderstand the position, or are part of our policy anyway, in the Library, so that both the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members can read it.

To return to the point about the imbalance between what is spent on processing asylum seekers who have the resources to arrive in the west and the many millions of displaced people in the rest of the world, I do not believe that that imbalance can make sense as a global strategy for tackling refugee problems. To encourage aslyum seekers to come to the west diverts funding and good will and means that those fleeing persecution find themselves at the back of the queue for determination of their claims for housing and other support. It can only be to the disadvantage of real refugees that we should allow the present misuse of asylum seeking to continue.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Eleven o'clock.