Under recent legislation asylum seekers will have their benefit withdrawn unless they apply for asylum immediately upon arrival in the UK. What is your response to concerns that this will lead to widespread homelessness and severe destitution for many asylum seekers?
Our policy of denying support to those who do not claim asylum as soon as reasonably practicable has not led, despite what our critics have said, to the destitution and homelessness you describe. It is a balanced and fair policy that ensures support goes to those who need it. It’s not unreasonable to ask people to claim asylum as soon as they can.
The benefits for asylum seekers currently stand at 70 percent of income support levels. Why is this?
It’s not true that asylum seekers get just 70 percent of income support. They also have their utility and council tax bills paid, and are given furnished accommodation. Taken together, this in-kind support brings the value of their benefits up to approximately that of an income support claimant. Children get 100 percent of standard benefit levels.
Do you think that the policy of dispersing asylum seekers to rural communities risks alienating them from the kind of support systems – especially from their own ethnic communities – more available in urban areas?
At the moment the vast majority of asylum seekers live in London. Those who are dispersed by the National Asylum Support Service go to urban areas in other parts of the country, usually where there is available housing. These tend to be the most disadvantaged areas, whose schools may have surplus places, and whose health services are under considerable pressure. That is why we have decided to begin trials of accommodation centres for asylum seekers, in which all the services will be provided on site. This is the norm in Europe. They won’t just be in rural areas, but in a mix of locations.
Won’t teaching the children of asylum seekers in accommodation centres away from mainstream schooling lead to their exclusion rather than integration into the community?
Children in accommodation centres will receive an education that meets national curriculum standards and that is inspected by OFSTED. They will be in accommodation centres for the duration of their claims and appeals. Those whose families are granted refugee status will often move into mainstream schools within a matter of weeks. Others will have to leave the country. But either way, there will generally be a six-month limit on their stay in the centre.
Won’t increased border controls introduced by the government prevent many genuine asylum seekers from entering the UK?
From April, we will start taking refugees directly from overseas, in partnership with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. This will mean that we can provide a safe haven to those genuine refugees who cannot afford to pay traffickers to get them to the UK. But we make no apologies for toughening up our border controls. There is too much abuse of our asylum system, and most of those who arrive in the UK clandestinely come from safe third countries in which they could have already claimed asylum.
How careful do ministers have to be about the language they use on this issue? Do you think the use of terms such as ‘swamping’ and ‘bogus’ asylum seekers are legitimate?
Neither David Blunkett nor I have used the word ‘bogus’. I deplore the way asylum seekers are demonised in some quarters, and I would never use that kind of language. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t say there is abuse of the system, because there undoubtedly is, and we have to deal with it. This is in the interests not least of people who are facing real persecution as opposed to those seeking a better life. When David mentioned ‘swamping’ he was using a word that is in his everyday vocabulary and referring to pressures on local GP services – not immigration to the UK, which was Thatcher’s real target.
Do you think that the government is doing enough to promote a greater recognition of the economic and cultural contribution asylum seekers make to British society?
We do fund work to promote positive views of refugees. It’s an uphill struggle, as you can imagine. But we have repeatedly made it clear that our society benefits enormously from diversity, and refugees are a really important part of that. You only have to think about the contribution made by those who fled the pogroms in Eastern Europe, or escaped Nazi Germany, or the Chilean and Ugandan refugees of the 1970s.
How do we ensure that we successfully counter the threat of international terrorism whilst continuing to provide a safe haven for asylum seekers in genuine need?
We do rigorous security checks on all asylum seekers, and they are all fingerprinted and issued with ID cards. But we reject the hypocritical and opportunistic Tory attempt to associate asylum seekers with terrorism. Asylum seekers are no more likely to be terrorists than anyone else.
Is it ever possible to have a progressive asylum policy when large sections of the press seem determined to use the issue
as a political football?
It is extremely difficult to hold a rational debate and implement policy seriously when there is such unbalanced reporting in certain sections of the press. But I don’t for a minute believe that these issues should not be debated openly and honestly. People simply turn to extremists when they don’t feel that their concerns are being addressed. Democracy only suffers in such circumstances.
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