HL Deb 23 January 2002 vol 630 cc1459-62

2.50 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government: What is now their policy on refugees seeking asylum in the United Kingdom who have arrived illegally in this country or are attempting to do so.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the Government are committed to their international obligations under the 1951 United Nations convention relating to the status of refugees. All asylum applications are considered on their individual merits within the terms of the convention, regardless of whether the asylum applicant has entered or has attempted to enter the United Kingdom illegally.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that reply. Many refugees, once having arrived in France, try to enter the United Kingdom, as illustrated by the very large number who stormed the Channel Tunnel on Christmas Day. Is that because our system seldom ejects someone who has arrived on British soil? Furthermore, what progress is being made with regard to closing the camp at Sangatte?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, it is simply not true to say that we do not remove people. At the ports, some 40,000 people per year are turned back as they arrive. If someone claims asylum, then we look at the claim on its individual merits. Those who fail in an asylum claim are being removed at the present time at a rate of approximately 800 to 900 per month. We have a policy in place, training is being undertaken and resources are being allocated to raise that removal rate to some 2,500 per month, including dependants. So it is simply not true to say that we do not remove.

With regard to Sangatte, discussions take place on a regular basis between Home Office Ministers—in particular the Home Secretary—and their French counterparts. Indeed, discussions were held only over the past few days which initially were quite badly reported in the media. Nevertheless, this is an issue, although the fact is that fewer people are coming through by clandestine means, hidden in lorries or ferries, or through the Channel Tunnel. That is now causing a problem for the French because the population of Sangatte is rising. Essentially that is a problem for the French Government and is one which they are actively seeking to address. However, as I have said before from this Dispatch Box, France is a safe country, a place that is perfectly safe in which people may claim asylum when they are fleeing persecution.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, while I appreciate what the Government are doing to address this difficult issue—for example, in the change of status for Her Majesty's Haslar detention centre—does the Minister agree that the original Question covering the articulation of a proper policy on immigration has to be addressed in the first instance?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, yes. That is to be done in an extensive and lengthy White Paper to be published in early February.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, the Minister referred to our international obligations. Of course that is correct, but is it sufficient? Do the Government appreciate that,

over the past 13 months, no fewer than eight illegal entrants have been electrocuted inside the Channel Tunnel? In view of that, would it not be wise to consider joint screening in France to determine in which country applications for asylum should best be made?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I have to say to the noble Lord that my response is no. All that would achieve would be to turn the Sangatte centre into a reception centre or clearing house for claims to enter the United Kingdom. That is the reality of what would happen. The suggestion is seductive, but it is a fact that tragedies are taking place both in the Channel Tunnel and elsewhere. Such acts are extremely dangerous. We have taken what steps we can to inform people staying in Sangatte of the dangers, even using a video produced last year to illustrate how dangerous is the practice of trying to jump on to moving trains, as well as making clear the other dangers implicit in what is taking place. I understand that such behaviour shows the degree of desperation felt, but using Sangatte as a clearing house would not solve the problem.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, at an all-party meeting held last night, my noble friend said that 600,000 people came into this country illegally last year. Why can they not be turned back when they come into the country? My noble friend said that they can be turned back at the ports, but could they also be turned back at the mouth of the Channel Tunnel and thus sent straight back to the safe country of France?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I should put it on the record that 600,000 people enter Europe illegally each year. The approximate rate of entry of asylum seekers to this country per year is 5,000 to 6,000 per month, a figure which has remained fairly static for a while. However, as I have said, it has been estimated that around 600,000 people enter the European Union illegally each year.

I return to a point I made in response to an earlier question. I must stress that we return some people immediately, at the port and sometimes on the same aircraft that brought a person into the country. The rate at which such removals takes place is running at 30,000 to 40,000 per year. Not all those entering this country by such means go on to claim asylum, but if such entrants do claim asylum, we then fulfil our international obligations by judging each claim on its own merits. That means that it is impossible to remove someone immediately.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that when the 1951 convention was agreed between many civilised countries, there were relatively few people who were considered likely to be refugees? However, since then, large numbers of refugees in various parts of the world are now being forced to leave their own countries for racial, political or religious reasons. Would it not be wise now to suggest that the convention should be renegotiated and revised?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the noble Lord has made a good case. The situation today is not the same as it was 50 years ago when the convention was drawn up. We now have the phenomenon of internationally organised trafficking in human beings for economic purposes. Sometimes there is also a hint—it is only a hint—of mass exoduses from some countries being encouraged for political purposes; that is, in order to put pressure on other countries. International discussions are under way, but I have to tell the noble Lord that until the convention is changed we shall fulfil our international obligations under it. I say that because there are people who cannot claim protection under the 1951 convention, which relates to some of the issues raised in regard to the anti-terrorism Bill passed last year, so it is not a completely open door. That point should be put on the record.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, can the Minister explain whether there are any legal means by which an individual can enter this country and claim asylum?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I think that the short answer to the noble Lord's question is no.