COMMENTARY: It’s not science, Mr Blair. Here’s the answer you should have given Paxman.

By Sir Andrew Green, Chairman, MigrationwatchUK
© Copyright of Sir Andrew Green
The Daily Mail, London, 22 April, 2005

Jeremy Paxman’s interview with the Prime Minister on Wednesday was quite extraordinary. Not because of the grilling that Paxman gave him, that after all is his stock in trade, but because of the Prime Minister’s unwillingness to answer a simple question that was put to him 20 times.

Either he was thoroughly badly briefed and didn’t know the answer, or he wishes to hide something.

He was asked to estimate the number of illegal immigrants in Britain. This is not rocket science. There are broadly three kinds of illegal immigrant – failed asylum seekers, those who overstay their visas and those who get into Britain on the back of a truck.

The Government certainly knows how many asylum seekers there are. It has a vast bureaucracy to deal with them. A bureaucracy that costs the taxpayer £2 billion a year.

Some are granted asylum. Others fail asylum but are given permission to stay, usually because of conditions in their own country, and the rest are eventually refused – often after several appeals. Obviously, the Government must know how many of this category there are.

Those whose claims fail, no longer have any right to be in Britain and are supposed to be removed. Not many are actually removed but, again, the Government has the numbers.

The rest should be simple arithmetic – except the Government claims a significant but unknown number of failed asylum seekers go home of their own accord.

Think about it for a moment. These are people who have made a considerable effort to get here. Often they will have paid a large sum, often got together by their families, to a people smuggler. They will have been in Britain for at least a year, often several years.

If they haven’t already found work on the black market they can very easily do so – at pay rates many times higher than in their own country.

Can one seriously believe that a significant number just pack their bags and go? It defies common sense. But it doesn’t prevent the Home Office from claiming, with a straight face, that because it cannot give a precise number it will not give one at all.

So MigrationWatch did the calculation for them. We even allowed for 10 per cent to go home unannounced and we arrived at an estimate of about 250,000 – roughly the population of Newcastle. And these are only asylum seekers whose cases have been decided since 1997. There will be others from earlier years.

Some failed asylum seekers will now be legitimate as a result of amnesties, sometimes disguised as ‘backlog clearance exercises’ which have been granted twice by this Government and at least once by their predecessors.

The latest was in October 2003 but the Government has refused to say how many took advantage of it. At the time they mentioned a figure of 50,000. Since then silence. Why all this secrecy over numbers?

The next group of illegals are those who come legitimately on visas and then simply stay on. Some come as visitors, others as students.

A recent check in Ghana found that 37 per cent of those granted student visas to the UK could no longer be traced.

And of 400 colleges at which students were supposed to be enrolling in Britain, 100 turned out to be bogus. It is a situation of extraordinary chaos which stems from the failure of the Government to check foreigners in and out.

The Conservatives started the rot by abolishing embarkation controls for European destinations and Labour made a bad situation worse by abolishing the rest of the controls.

We now receive very nearly 2 million visa applications a year which have to be dealt with in an average of 11 minutes per application. We issue more than 11 /2 million visas each year but there is no check on arrival or departure.

This is an abysmal situation to which the Government is, at last, turning its attention. It plans to introduce fingerprints on visas and checks on arrival and departure. Not exactly before time.

Which brings us to the third category of illegal immigrants – those who stowaway on trucks or vans. About 50,000 a year are detected but nobody knows what multiple of this number actually succeed.

The Government has introduced expensive technology at Dover and at some of the French and Belgium ports. The number of illegals has dropped sharply in Dover but there is much more to do at other ports, many of which are only manned part-time.

So can we put a number on these other illegals? Not a precise number, obviously. But, according to a document leaked to a Sunday newspaper this week, the Prime Minister himself called for an estimate of illegal immigration more than a year ago.

A leading expert, Professor John Salt, Director of the Migration Research Unit at University College London, provided a report on methods of estimating illegal immigrants, together with his own estimate of between 450,000 and 500,000 illegal immigrants (excluding dependants).

What happened next? The Government first sat on the report. Then, in response to a Freedom of Information request from a newspaper, it released the report but took the numbers out of it. Professor Salt, apparently, was told to keep quiet.

Meanwhile, in response to questions, ministers repeatedly replied that there was ‘no official estimate’. This was a blatant evasion.

We now know that there was an estimate, it was in a report which they commissioned, and they took it out before the report was published. This is part of a consistent pattern of dishonesty on immigration which has destroyed public confidence.

Poll after poll now shows 85 per cent do not believe the Government has immigration and asylum under control. Worse, 75 per cent do not believe the Government is open and honest on the subject.

So why, given this history, was the Prime Minister so extraordinarily evasive on Wednesday night?

Certainly, he was badly briefed. He claimed, for example, that half of failed asylum seekers are being removed. That is simply not true. The correct approach is to consider how many asylum seekers in a particular year are rejected, and what proportion of them are removed. Over the seven years of his Government, the answer is that only one in four has been removed.

If you take the most recent period, the answer is much worse because officials have put a huge effort into deciding cases but no parallel effort into removals. In 2004, only one in 15 was removed and the average time taken to do so was 20 months.

But is there some other reason? Clearly Mr Blair was trying (three times) to shift the focus on to his new ‘target’ that the Government should remove each year as many as fail so that we are not adding to the ‘pool’ of failed asylum seekers – the pool that he was so desperate not to quantify.

This is supposed to be achieved by the end of 2005, safely after the election. That is not going too well either. The rejection rate is running at about 2,000 a month but removals seem to be stuck at 1,000 a month.

Not that these pledges can be taken seriously. The last manifesto promised 30,000 removals a year. That undertaking was simply dropped as unachievable.

So it is a mess that the Prime Minister did not want to discuss. But could there be another reason?

Half a million illegals is quite low on the spectrum of estimates. Could there be other, larger estimates kicking around in the Government’s files? ‘Unofficial’ estimates, of course?

Sir Andrew Green is the former British Ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia.

© Copyright of Sir Andrew Green
The Daily Mail, London, 22 April, 2005

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