Blair's secret plan to crack down on asylum seekers

23.May.02,  first published by The Guardian: read the original article here.

Warship to intercept people traffickers
Bulk deportations in RAF transport planes
Aid only if states take back failed applicants

Tony Blair has taken personal control of asylum policy and is considering proposals to mobilise Royal Navy warships to intercept people traffickers in the Mediterranean and carry out bulk deportations in RAF transport planes, according to a Downing Street document passed to the Guardian.

The confidential "action plan" to "deliver a radical reduction in the number of unfounded asylum applications" in Britain was drawn up by the Home Office for the prime minister and circulated to senior ministers in advance of a meeting chaired by Mr Blair last Wednesday.

"It has become clear from the prime minister's discussions on this issue that concerted action is needed across government if we are to deliver a radical reduction in the numbers," says the memorandum written by Olivia McLeod, a Downing Street policy adviser, accompanying the detailed plans.

The far-reaching scope of Mr Blair's plans to tackle the asylum "crisis" will cause alarm among refugee welfare groups in Britain, around Europe and in the developing world.

The papers show that "concerted action" would include tying bilateral British (as well as European Union) development aid to countries such as Somalia, Sri Lanka, Turkey and other leading countries of asylum origin to commitments to take back rejected asylum seekers.

It is understood that Clare Short, the international development secretary, is resisting the move on the grounds that such conditions on overseas aid projects would be illegal. A spokeswoman for the international development department confirmed last night that any any attempt to link aid with asylum policies would contravene the new International Development Act.

Negotiations are planned in particular with Turkey to facilitate deportations to northern Iraq and Afghanistan and, according to the leaked documents, ministers are also to consider imposing sanctions on uncooperative countries, including refusing visas to individual government officials.

The Home Office-drafted plan identifies areas for action across government "at each of the stages of an unfounded claim, from tackling the problem at source to securing swift removal of failed applicants."

The Ministry of Defence has been asked if it is possible "for navy ships in the eastern Mediterranean" to intercept people traffickers operating in near east sea routes who have targeted Britain. The MoD has also been asked for help in providing "secure bulk removals" - presumably a reference to RAF planes - and to open up deportation routes to "difficult-to-return countries" such as Sri Lanka and Somalia.

The documents also reveal that Mr Blair wants to see a push with the new French government to resolve the problem at Sangatte. They concede that it will cost 4m to fix the "very poor" fencing at the nearby Frethun rail freight marshalling yard . Officials say they might be able to "lever private investment from the transport lobby" to fix the fence at Frethun but add that there will be a "problem if we fund the special treatment of SNCF [the French rail operator] compared to other operators, such as Eurotunnel." The latter has spent more than 6m improving security at its French terminal.

Downing Street appears to want to find ways for Britain to "stop safe third country access" from France with the aim of developing a joint deportations effort. The proposals are being finalised and a negotiating strategy being drawn up that includes the "unilateral threat" option of simply refusing and returning applicants from France if no deal is achieved.

The attorney general is being asked if it is legally possible under the Dublin convention to send asylum seekers back to France. Ministers have asked the law officers to look at whether it is possible to intro duce legislation to refuse to process applications where it could be shown that the asylum seeker had travelled through another country.

The Downing Street note discloses that other radical steps are under consideration. For example the Home Office plan says that the visa regime may be extended to Zimbabwe. It admits that it would be "highly problematic to make it more difficult for people to leave" that country. A plan to have British officials working at Charles de Gaulle and Schipol airports is said to be "very sensitive politically".

Action is also being considered against asylum seekers already in Britain. The officials admit that a Home Office plan to end cash-only support for asylum seekers who refuse offers of accommodation to be introduced this autumn involves a "begging/destitution risk in London".

Other measures include:

limiting to 12 months the time that asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Somalia granted exceptional leave can stay in Britain

legislating for a "white list" of "manifestly unfounded applicants (in particular those from eastern Europe)". In these cases lodging an appeal will no longer suspend their removal

identifying new sites in the north-west and near Stansted to build Yarl's Wood-style removal centres to detain those about to be deported

The prime minister yester day told a private meeting of the parliamentary Labour party that MPs must stay focused on the issues that matter to people and not duck tough policy questions.

After the success of rightwing parties in France and Holland he also said it was important that centre-left parties tackled issues such as crime and immigration head-on to avoid fringe parties exploiting people's anxieties.