'Back-door amnesty' may let immigrants stay
By Ben Leapman,
Home Affairs Correspondent,
Last Updated: 1:44am BST 08/08/2007
Hundreds of thousands of failed asylum seekers may be allowed to settle permanently in Britain under a “back-door amnesty” scheme.
(Photo: Cardinal Cormack Murphy O'Connor and The Bishop of Southwark support an amnesty for illegal migrants.)
The Government is striving to clear a backlog of 450,000 “legacy” cases of immigrants who were turned down for refugee status but were never expelled.
A 1,000-strong Home Office team has been set up to work through the list, giving priority to individuals and families who may now qualify for UK residency rights because such a long time has passed since their initial rejection.
Without publicity, the first 6,000 families on the list were sent questionnaires last month asking about their current circumstances. Insiders close to the scheme said those who gave the “right” answers would be granted “leave to remain”.
Asylum seekers who cannot be traced are expected to be simply struck off the “legacy” list, giving the impression that officials have made progress in tackling the backlog. They would no longer be sought actively for removal, even though they would remain illegal immigrants – liable for deportation if ever caught.
A campaign for an amnesty for illegal migrants has won backing from many Labour MPs and Church leaders.
But David Davis, the shadow home secretary, said: “Senior members of this Government, including Harriet Harman [Labour deputy leader] and Alan Johnson [Health Secretary], may have publicly endorsed an amnesty for people entering the UK illegally, but now the Government is effectively offering an amnesty via the back door.”
The Borders and Immigration Agency (BIA), a branch of the Home Office, aims to consider all “legacy” cases by 2011. It will not say how many of the 450,000 it expects to be allowed to remain.
Those granted leave-to-remain status will be able to live and work freely in the UK, and claim benefits. After five years they can apply for a British passport. This would normally be granted unless an applicant commits serious crimes or is considered a national security threat.
Officials have been told to give priority to cases in four categories: those likely to qualify for leave to remain; those receiving financial support from the Home Office pending appeal against refusal of asylum; those who can be removed easily; and those who pose a risk to the public.
One member of a Home Office advisory panel that has discussed the legacy exercise said: “They are upping the pace quite a lot now. By the end of this year, they ought to be progressing a lot of cases.”
Liam Clifford, a former immigration officer and head of the consultancy globalvisas.com, said: “While the Home Office talks tough, it is preparing for one of the biggest mass grants of residency rights to asylum seekers in history.
“The word is out at street level that completing the questionnaire will result in the right to stay in the UK. The BIA simply does not have the resources to investigate each case properly, so it will grant all the applications it can in order to clear the backlog.”
Ministers insist the scheme does not amount to an amnesty because decisions are being taken on a case-by-case basis. Liam Byrne, the immigration minister, said: “We have no plans for an amnesty, which I have condemned as wrong. This has always been our position and remains the case.”
The move to clear up the asylum backlog follows the biggest wave of legal migration in history, with more than 600,000 eastern Europeans moving to the UK since the 2004 EU expansion.
Only about 18,000 failed asylum seekers were removed last year. Efforts by the Home Office to increase the rate of removals have met with limited success.
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