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Asylum Seekers

Volume 404: debated on Monday 28 April 2003

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What plans he has to establish reception centres outside the European Union for processing asylum applications. [109755]

The Home Secretary presented the Government's proposals for new international approaches to asylum processing and refugee protection to his European Union counterparts on 28 March. Positive and constructive discussions are continuing with other member states, the European Commission and relevant international bodies, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. We are looking to the Commission to bring back its considerations at the next European Council meeting in June. and we will take a view then on the next steps.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, and urge my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to continue to press his proposals. My hon. Friend the Minister will know that Australia uses the island country of Nauru as a centre for processing asylum applications. Is not the great benefit of that system that it has almost resulted in the end of people trafficking into Australia? If we could use such a system to bear down on the trafficking of people into the European Union, could we not speed the processing of applications, to the benefit of genuine asylum seekers, while avoiding the problems that we experience in trying to deport unsuccessful applicants?

Certainly, we developed the proposals in part because we believed that the sum total of countries' asylum systems—the global asylum system—is failing, and particularly failing refugees. Because refugees have to enter countries illegally, one of the perverse effects of the current system is that it has fuelled the rise of criminal gangs that smuggle people for profit. My hon. Friend is right that cutting out the criminal gangs would be an important consequence of processing claims in a third country. It would not only deter people from illegal entry, thereby starving the gangs of their supply, but help reduce both the high level of criminality associated with that activity as well as the risk and misery that often accompany those who have to rely on people smugglers.

With many economic migrants claiming political asylum and making a mockery of our immigration rules, with accommodation centres proving extremely unpopular, as witnessed by the 32,000 signatures on the petition against an accommodation centre at Lee-on-the-Solent, and with the deportation targets now being completely abandoned, is it not clear that the present system is not working and cannot be made to work? if the Government choose to follow Conservative policies on this occasion, we shall not complain but congratulate them.

If we look back over the past 18 years, it is not clear what Conservative policies on asylum were; in fact, it was an abject neglect of asylum policy that led to the current situation. If the hon. Gentleman looks back over the Labour Government's policies, he will see that we are taking action domestically, and jointly with France, to secure our borders and legislating to reduce unfounded claims and deal with them more effectively. As well as improving the efficiency of the system that we inherited from the Conservatives, he will see that those domestic measures and international measures, together with the UNHCR proposals to look again at the implementation of the convention, are the way to deal with the current problem—not the 18 years of neglect that we saw under the Conservatives.

I welcome the proposal that will allow people to make asylum applications from outside the UK. Can my hon. Friend give us more information about how such centres will be set up? What agreements will be necessary with the countries in which they are placed? Who will actually make decisions in those centres? Is it intended that the UNHCR will decide who is to be allowed to come to the UK, or will Home Office or Foreign Office officials be working in those countries when the centres are established?

I thank my hon. Friend for his questions, which are relevant and important. He has clearly given much thought to some of the implications of the proposals. We are considering them and discussing them with other member states and the UNHCR. There are several options on who would determine the claims. It may be important for individual member states to participate jointly in the enterprise to ensure that they have a presence and ownership of decision making. It is equally important to develop a mechanism that has the international credibility that the involvement of the UNHCR, and perhaps of the International Organisation for Migration, would give us, so that all member states can be assured that the centres are operated with a degree of independence and credibility.

I cannot give my hon. Friend detailed answers to his questions, except to tell him that all the details are important and that is precisely what we are exploring at present.

I welcome the hon. Lady's comments and the substantial move that the Government have taken towards a policy that the Conservative party has been advocating. Will the Government go further and consider applying a quota system, which would be much fairer in allowing in larger numbers of genuine asylum seekers while ensuring, through the UNHCR, that the determination of the applications takes place abroad? Has she any comment to make to the House about the amount of money that might be saved by that system and how that money might then be used in the Home Office budget?

I am glad that the Conservative party is hanging on to our coat tails in agreeing that that is a sensible way forward. In fact, the proposals arose from the extensive research that the Home Secretary put in train, which looked in great detail at the situation globally. We do not support the Conservative party's policy of a fixed quota. Clearly, in addition to the status determination issue that I raised earlier, there would have to be an agreement about how the claims accepted in the processing centres would be shared among the participating countries, but that is very different from having an absolute quota for the United Kingdom itself. Of course, a big question that arises with quotas is what happens to the person who comes after the quota has been reached. For example, how would Opposition Members deal with the claimant from Zimbabwe who arrived after the quota had been reached? Would they send that person back? Perhaps they would be interested in answering that.

On costs, we certainly think that the proposal offers a completely different way to use our resources more effectively, not least because it enables us to offer more effective protection and ensure that more of our resources are spent helping refugees throughout the world, rather than processing largely unfounded asylum claims.