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The treatment of asylum-seekers

It may fairly be regarded as axiomatic that all European governments are seeking to reduce the number of asylum applicants whom they have to process. There is scarcely a modern instance that may be quoted where a high number of applications for asylum is not seen, either explicitly or surreptitiously, as implying the threat of some sort of social problem or disorder. Thus, many countries' procedures include elements intended to discourage applicants from seeking asylum there.


Some countries resort quite routinely to some form of detention towards applicants whose cases for asylum are regarded prima facie as weak and who are also judged likely therefore to disappear; such instances are often those being accorded a "fast track" procedure. Both the UK and The Netherlands are examples of countries that use de facto incarceration in some circumstances. Such detention during the determination of refugee status is not unlawful under the 1951 Convention, although it is arguably against its spirit. The concept of a "manifestly unfounded" claim for asylum, justifying some form of so-called "fast track" procedure, is now a quite general one throughout Europe, though operationalised somewhat differently in various countries. The pre-1997 Conservative UK government operated with a "white list" of supposedly safe countries of origin, the asylum claims of whose applicants were therefore deemed ipso facto inadmissible. The subsequent UK government has formally abolished this principle, although one suspects that it continues to operate more surreptitiously or subliminally when immigration officers are making decisions on asylum cases.


How asylum seekers are to be supported during the processing of their applications and where they should be housed have been issues of substantial controversy in a number of countries. The UK government, following the terms of its White Paper of July 1998, Fairer, Faster And Firmer--A Modern Approach To Immigration And Asylum, has introduced a voucher system for support (plus a very small allowance in cash), instead of general cash welfare payments, a change not approved by most organisations working to assist asylum seekers. An ongoing attempt to disperse asylum seekers and those granted asylum away from London and the south-east has met with only limited success and is now well below target, especially as many of those concerned have returned to ethnic peers in London and the South-East, sometimes to avoid the experience of racial violence or xenophobic behaviour. The German attempt in the early 1990s to disperse asylum seekers into the new regions of the former German Democratic Republic led to a number of notorious instances of racial violence.



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