The Home Office, this week, tried to present its new research on asylum-seeking in Europe as evidence that its policies were working. But what the research actually says is that attempts to deter asylum seekers through hardline measures are unlikely to be effective.
Earlier this year, Tony Blair set a target of halving the number of asylum applicants to the UK. He claimed that a series of hardline measures, introduced in the 2002 Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act, would cause such a dramatic fall in applicants, that the figures due to be published in November 2003 would show half the number of claims as in the same quarter in 2002.
The measures introduced by the Act included the controversial withdrawal of benefits for so-called ‘in-country’ applicants (those that do not make a claim for asylum within a few hours of arriving in the country), as well as the introduction of a ‘white list’ of countries from which asylum claims are presumed to be false and the curtailing of full rights of appeal. All these measures have been justified on the grounds that they will deter those with ‘unfounded’ claims.
This week, the Home Office published research which was specifically commissioned to examine what kinds of effect different European asylum policies have had on the number of claims made. The research looked at the relationship between asylum policy and the numbers of asylum seekers in various European countries from 1990 to 2000. Home Office minister Beverley Hughes hailed the study as showing the effectiveness of tighter border controls, such as visas and carrier sanctions, in reducing asylum claims.
But the researchers themselves have claimed that this is, at best, a partial reading of the research. Dr David Griffiths, one of the report’s authors, accused Hughes of attempting to use the research ‘to buttress government policies in a way which is illegitimate’. In fact, the study, although worded in the sober language of academia and sharing the government’s premise that asylum claims need to be reduced, effectively subverts the working assumptions of current government policy.
The main conclusion of the report is that there is, in fact, very little cause and effect between a country’s asylum policies and the number of asylum seekers coming to that country. Rather, the major factor determining the number of asylum seekers coming is the political and economic situation in the countries from which they are fleeing. This has a larger influence than any policies in the receiving country aimed at restricting or deterring entry. And the decision of asylum seekers to apply in one country rather than another is influenced by factors which governments have little control over, such as former colonial relationships or other historic ties and the existence of settled communities of co-nationals.
In Britain, the report argues, asylum policy has been introduced reactively in response to short-term increases in numbers. By the time new legislation comes into effect, numbers have already started to decline. The introduction of ‘indirect’ measures of control, such as reception facilities, detention and the withdrawal of welfare benefits (all elements of recent legislation in the UK), have had no impact on deterring asylum seekers, according to the study. Although, in the short term, the introduction of direct controls on entry, such as visas, has reduced the number of asylum applications received, the impact has only been for a limited time period, after which the numbers have returned to the earlier pattern.
The report also argues that many policies, aimed at reducing numbers, have, in fact, been counter-productive. In particular, there is ‘strong circumstantial evidence’ that attempts to restrict the entry of asylum seekers through stronger border controls have led to a growth in trafficking and led to asylum seekers being forced to use illegal means of entry.
Taking the EU as a whole, the report suggests that, even with wide variations in policy during the 1990s, the number of asylum claims has ‘consistently fluctuated between about 200,000 and 400,000 applications per annum’. The exception to this is the high number of claims in 1991 and 1992, which is almost wholly attributable to the crisis in the former Yugoslavia.
The study suggests that the underlying consistency in the numbers of claims during this period reflects the new nature of war since the end of the Cold War, in which violence has often been inflicted on civilian populations by non-state agents, in protracted and complex conflicts. As such, displacement has not been the temporary ‘by-product’ of a war between states but the explicitly intended outcome of armed aggression. The result has been a continuous movement of people seeking refuge from conflict situations.
Against this backdrop of ongoing violence, governments which assume that ‘unfounded’ claims can be reduced through tougher policies will find that their efforts only have unpredictable and negative consequences.