Britain has had to at least postpone a proposal to build refugee camps outside the European Union, in the face of resistance to the idea from EU leaders meeting in Greece. The retreat comes as the British government faces increased public demands to reduce the record numbers of asylum-seekers arriving in Britain. But as the government continues to tighten its asylum and immigration laws, refugee advocates fear the new rules shut the door on many people who legitimately deserve protection.
Last year, Britain received 110,000 applications for asylum, the highest number in a steady rise since the mid-1990s. But in the first quarter of this year, the number of applications dropped significantly, by one-third compared to the previous quarter. Prime Minister Tony Blair applauded the decline as the direct result of a tough new law passed in November, called The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act.
Its supporters say the Act closes many of the loopholes that economic migrants were using to abuse Britain's public benefits system. The member of Parliament from the coastal city of Dover, Gwyn Prosser, says his constituents had become increasingly concerned by the sheer numbers of new arrivals entering through the nearby Channel Tunnel that connects England to France. "We've always had a very good reputation for being tolerant, and receiving asylum-seekers, and giving the genuine asylum-seeker support. But we can only keep the support of local people and the credence of the system proper, if we can assure our own residents that our own system is not being abused, not being bypassed, and not being circumvented by people who are really just trying to come in under immigration laws."
The British Home Office, which directs asylum and immigration policy, says tighter security at the Channel Tunnel contributed to the recent drop in asylum applications.
This week, the British government made additional changes. It deployed high-tech freight-searching equipment, such as heartbeat detectors, to combat immigrant smuggling. And the government increased to 24 the number of countries where it believes living conditions are too good for people to claim asylum abroad.
But what the government calls progress, refugee advocates call worrisome. Among them is Stephen Rylance, of the organization, Refugee Action. "Our concern is that we're getting caught up in a numbers game, which is driven chiefly by politics. And it's really about an obsession with statistics, where we are losing the human dimension, the fact that, at the end of the day, asylum-seekers are people. And many of them are people who very genuinely need protection," he says.
Mr. Rylance says the most destructive change to British policy is a clause in the new asylum act that allows the government to deny housing, food and health benefits to those who don't apply for asylum immediately upon entering Britain. "If you're being smuggled into the country in the back of a lorry, it's very difficult for you to present yourself to the immigration officers the moment you arrive. But what's worried us is that we've seen people who've done their best, once they're in the country to apply within 24 hours, but have been left destitute," he says.
The representative in Britain for the International Federation of Iraqi Refugees, Dashty Jamal, says the government's new timing rules can create serious problems for asylum-seekers. "Now, the life is very hard in the UK for the new arrival. Three months ago, the British government, they change a policy, about if you apply inside the UK you not have a chance to have benefit, to have a chance to have housing, accommodation, anything else. So now, the life for asylum-seekers is very dangerous. The government is starting to open so many detention centers," he says. "They send them for the hostels. And also, they are not making a decision very quick about the case, sometimes they [take] three years, sometimes four years."
The British public's perception of the asylum issue has influenced the government's tougher approach.
An opinion poll conducted last year found that the average citizen believes Britain hosts 23 percent of the world's refugees and asylum-seekers. In fact, the number is less than two percent.
And a poll commissioned by Amnesty International, published this week, found that 58 percent of young people in Britain believe that asylum-seekers and refugees do not make a positive contribution to the country. But a Home Office study recently concluded that, in the long term, immigrants contribute more to the British economy than they take out.
At the London-based Institute for Public Policy Research, migration expert Heaven Crawley says British attitudes reflect a genuine concern over limited government resources. But she says there are other issues as well. "There is a concern about terrorism and threats to security, in the context of 9-11. Those concerns are not as strong in Europe as they are in the U-S, but they're nonetheless there. And again, if you put that in the context of racism more generally, anti-Muslim behavior, and a concern for government to get a hold of the asylum issue, all of those things coalesce to make it politically easier to come down hard on asylum-seekers than to deal with other aspects of the problem," she says.
Ms. Crawley says a better approach would be for western countries to work to improve the economic and political conditions that push people to try to emigrate to the west.
At a meeting of European leaders in Greece on Thursday, Britain withdrew its proposal that the EU build and fund centers to protect refugees and process asylum-seekers outside of the EU, nearer to zones of conflict. Opponents of the British plan, including Germany and Sweden, questioned whether it would ensure that the human rights of asylum-seekers are protected. But Britain says it will go ahead with pilot projects, with the help of supporters such as Denmark and the Netherlands, and may still apply for EU funding.
Refugee Action spokesman Stephen Rylance says focusing international attention on the asylum issue is a positive step, but he says the British influence worries him. "What we are concerned about is that the UK, in attempting to appear tough on asylum, is actually using its influence to lower the threshold of human rights provisions in Europe," he says.
Mr. Rylance says Britain's plan to create zones of protection for refugees might work, but only if it is adequately financed. Otherwise, he warns, it could put a further burden on developing countries, which already host 70 percent of the world's asylum seekers.