Skip to main content

UK's 'broken' asylum system remains battleground

By Peter Wilkinson, CNN
  • In 2002 UK government removed benefits from would-be refugees whose applications had been rejected
  • Campaigners say policy forces 200,000 failed asylum seekers into destitution
  • Coalition government denies situation is inhumane, vows to improve system
  • Immigration skeptics say it would be nonsensical to give failed asylum seekers benefits

LONDON, England (CNN) -- In his recent memoirs Tony Blair describes his realization on taking office in 1997 that Britain's asylum system was "broken, incapable, adrift in a sea of storms" and one that "required far tougher action."

The former UK prime minister says in "A Journey" that asylum claims soared from 30,000 in the mid-1990s to more than 100,000 by 2002, but officials could do little to stem the tide. The presumption "that someone who claimed asylum was persecuted and should be taken in ... was plainly false; most asylum claims were not genuine," he writes. "Disproving them, however, was almost impossible."

Amid outcry over the alleged abuse of the system by economic migrants seeking access to the UK labour market and welfare state, Blair's government responded with reforms intended to change the message that "if you get here and you claim asylum, then we'll support you," as then-Home Secretary David Blunkett told the BBC in 2002.

The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 amended support arrangements for asylum seekers and created provisions for their detention and removal. Most controversially the act also removed benefits from would-be refugees whose applications had been rejected.

Which countries are most 'welcoming' to asylum seekers?

But human rights campaigners say this policy (still in force today) of forcing failed asylum seekers into destitution breaches what they say is Britain's proud tradition of welcoming those fleeing persecution and violence.

Britain's asylum seekers left in limbo

The British Red Cross believes that due to a backlog, more than 200,000 people are now living in Britain whose claims -- and appeals -- have been rejected but cannot or will not go home. The charity says it provides assistance to 10,000 failed asylum seekers, but can only afford to give each person one £10 ($16) food voucher a week.

Failed asylum seekers tell their stories

In many cases this is all they have. "The level of support for an asylum seeker whose application has been turned down is nil: no benefits, no shelter, no basic healthcare," the charity's Chief Executive Nick Young told CNN.

Tell us about your migration. Send us your stories, images or video

Failed asylum seekers can only get benefits if they are taking immediate steps to leave the UK, but many do not claim this final level of support because they are frightened of the consequences of returning home, the charity says. Asylum seekers are also banned from working, although many do so in the black market, increasing the risk of exploitation, it adds.

The British Red Cross says this situation is inhumane. "Any government is entitled to make rules about who should be allowed to stay and to insist that anyone who doesn't satisfy those criteria should go home," Young concedes.

"What we are concerned about it that the decision not to grant asylum means that people who are vulnerable, who have come here from desperate situations a long way away, who have no support, family or friends, not only get turned down, but get no support in the period before they go home.

"I think it's a great shame that our government in common with others around the world should make it a deliberate policy that these vulnerable people should be destitute," Young said.

Britain's new coalition government denies the situation is inhumane. Immigration Minister Damien Green said in a statement: "The government is committed to exploring new ways of improving the current asylum system. The UK Border Agency provides support to asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute until a decision on their application is made.

It's a great shame that our government in common with others around the world should make it a deliberate policy that these vulnerable people should be destitute.
--Red Cross Chief Executive Nick Young

"However, when the independent courts have decided that an asylum seeker does not need international protection, support is discontinued and we expect them to return home voluntarily. Where a refused asylum seeker does not return voluntarily we will take removal action." The government pays for repatriation of failed asylum seekers.

The government's stance received backing from MigrationWatch UK, a group that describes itself on its website as an "independent, voluntary, non-political group which is concerned about the present level of immigration into the UK."

"It is important to make sure that cases are decided more quickly," said the group's chairman Andrew Green, adding that two-thirds of the 29,840 claims for asylum in the UK in 2009 were rejected, but 80 percent of those who lost their cases stayed in the country by appealing, a process that could last for many years.

"Those who have a genuine claim for asylum should be welcomed to this country while those who are not genuine should be removed.

"Asylum seekers whose claims have been rejected are sustained with state benefits until the end of the appeals process," he said. "But how can they possibly get benefits after all appeals have been exhausted? That would make a mockery of the system and the benefit system would be overwhelmed."

But the issue of what should happen to the 200,000 failed asylum seekers referred to by the British Red Cross remains. One analyst said authorities could theoretically expel them but at a great risk. "In Australia you could probably round up rejected asylum seekers, put them on a plane and send them home," said Khalid Koser from the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.

"If you did that in UK you'd end up with race riots on the streets of Bradford. If I was in government and you asked me what I'd prefer: a few thousand rejected asylum seekers or race riots in multicultural cities, I'd probably say let failed asylum seekers stay.

"I think that's the calculation. I don't think the government is putting in the finances and effort it could because it's aware of the unintended consequences."

Campaigners anyway argue rejection of an asylum claim does not mean it was invalid under United Nations conventions; only that there is insufficient evidence of persecution.

And with appeals taking months, if not years, to process, failed asylum seekers are being pushed into penury simply because of what critics say is a crisis in the asylums process.

"The government has concerns about many people coming here," said the British Red Cross's Nick Young. "But making them destitute is not going to force them to go home. People look on Britain as a country with integrity and kindness. They're deeply shocked when they come and find there is no support. This is a breach of a proud tradition."

Koser agrees with this view, saying that while he believes Britain is more generous to those fleeing persecution than other European countries, pressure from the populist media is undermining that tradition.

"The irony of the reason that Britain is attractive to migrants and asylum seekers is that it's a decent, fair country where people are civilized. And here we are saying somehow we regret that. The slippery slope is that it becomes a nasty country full of racists and hopefully that will keep them away. But I wouldn't want to go that way."

Part of complete coverage on
Theater puts spotlight on refugees
An innovative theater program is highlighting the plight of the tens of thousands of refugees trying to forge a life in Egypt.
Tide turning against immigrants
Across Europe, a harsh line is being adopted against immigrants. Skeptics say borders must be stricter; that large-scale immigration will damage societies.
Warming to cause migrant surge?
The effects of climate change could cause a surge in migration that experts fear the world is unprepared for.
Asylum seekers: UK's let us down
Failed asylum seekers must cope with intolerance, hatred and violence but they must also survive without state benefits.
UK's asylum system a battleground
Tony Blair says he had to take action on Britain's asylum system but campaigners criticize the former PM's policy.
Britain's asylum seekers left in limbo
An examination of the plight of those in asylum limbo in Britain.
No sympathy for asylum seekers
In Birmingham, a city hit hard by the recession and one that displays many of the tensions experienced across Europe, hostility toward asylum seekers is much in evidence.
Send us your stories on migration
We would like to hear about your experiences of migration. Send us your stories, images and video and we will feature the best stories on