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June 2002, Volume 9, Number 6

UK: Asylum, Labor

Prime Minister Tony Blair outlined a plan to "regain the initiative" on asylum and immigration. First, Blair said the UK will cut off aid to Turkey and countries in the former Yugoslavia if they did not stop migrants from crossing them into Europe. Second, Blair called for action to strengthen EU borders and to provide financial assistance to countries such as Greece for more immigration officers. Blair is considering using British navy ships in the eastern Mediterranean to intercept people-traffickers who are bound for Britain.

Third, the Blair government is considering ways to "unlock fortress Britain" using "managed migration" to admit needed workers. Net migration into the UK was 183,000 in 2001.

Asylum. Some 71,700 foreigners applied for asylum in France in 2001, and the UK government is still seeking ways to house the 1,500 foreigners a week who apply for asylum. The latest proposal, to put three asylum centers in rural areas, was condemned by residents as well as migrant advocates; 89 Labour MPs signed a motion opposing a measure to educate refugee children in asylum centers instead of in mainstream schools.

The chair of the Commission for Racial Equality said that the government is pandering to the right wing with its asylum policy, and criticized the proposed detention centers for isolating asylum seekers: "If we want a cohesive and well-integrated society, is this really the best way to prepare new arrivals and the host community for an integrated Britain?" He was responding to Home Secretary David Blunkett, who said there was a danger that British schools could be "swamped" by asylum seekers.

Lord Rooker, the minister for citizenship and immigration, responded: "I am very disappointed by these ill informed comments. Accommodation centers are designed to speed up the system of dealing with asylum applications… We have spent a great deal of time promoting the benefits of managed economic migration. Social cohesion depends on developing this migration, so that people can see and feel its benefits."

International Development Secretary Clare Short ridiculed a leaked Downing Street plan to link aid to the return of asylum seekers to certain countries as "not thought through and not sensible." However, the Cabinet committee handling asylum in May 2002 announced plans to use the Royal Air Force to return asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Turkey and Sri Lanka who were not granted asylum in the UK, thus deterring more arrivals. About 700 Afghans a month have been seeking asylum in Britain.

A survey of Blacks and Asians by BBC Online/ICM found that a majority believe new immigrants should be required to attend citizenship classes, including 75 percent of Blacks and 68 percent of Asians. However, 51 percent thought Britain was a racist society; 40 percent said it was not.

Labor. The UK government released a report earlier in 2002 that found that immigrants pay more in taxes than they consume in tax-supported services- L32 billion paid in taxes in 1999-2000, and L29 billion in tax-supported services. The report concluded: "Migrants reduced the amount that the existing population paid in taxes, or increased the amount they received in welfare around 1p on the basic rate of income tax."

Work Permits UK is the government agency that decides whether employers can have migrants admitted to fill specific jobs after employers show that UK workers are not available. It recognizes "acute shortages" of doctors and nurses, as well as in electronic and structural engineering. The government says that migrants can help create a more "flexible labor market," allowing the economy to respond to fluctuations in demand.

There are a large but unknown number of unskilled and unauthorized foreign workers in the UK, attracted in part by lower unemployment and less labor market regulation than in continental Europe. Many of the illegal migrants are from Eastern Europe, where wages for unskilled work may be only $150 to $250 a month. The UK has no plans for an amnesty.

The UK has two guest worker programs: one allows 40,000 young Commonwealth citizens a year-most from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa-- to enter the UK as working holiday makers. They can stay up to two years, and work half that time to support themselves. Another program admits 20,000 seasonal agricultural workers, most from Eastern Europe, for up to six months; it may be expanded to cover the building and hospitality industries. A consultation paper released in May 2002 discussed increasing the number of work permits for short-term non-EU foreigners to 120,000 a year.

Philip Stephens, "A small wave of immigration: Government proposals to limit the flow of immigrants and asylum-seekers could turn a trickle into a tide," Financial Times, May 24, 2002. Seummas Milne and Alan Travis, "Blair's secret plan to crack down on asylum seekers," The Guardian, May 23, 2002. Nicholas Watt, "Blair threatens aid cut to control immigration," The Guardian, May 20, 2002. Matt Weaver, "Race watchdog attacks Labour's asylum policy," Guardian, May 16, 2002. Sophie Goodchild, "Revolt over exclusion of asylum children," The Independent, May 5, 2002.