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Hague: Conservatives will make Britain a safe haven for genuine refugees

In a speech to party activists in Dover highlighting how Labour have failed to deal with the issue of asylum, the Rt Hon William Hague, Leader of the Party:

"I am proud of Britain's great tradition of offering a refuge for people from all over the world fleeing persecution, oppression and tyranny. We have never shirked our moral as well as our legal obligations to those people in genuine need of sanctuary. And let me be totally clear - I hope that we never will. Because I would be ashamed to live in a Britain that closed its doors to the genuine refugee.

"Under the next Conservative Government, Britain will be a safe haven for the genuine refugee. I want their applications to be dealt with rapidly and efficiently - within weeks, not years. And for those who are accepted I want them to find a country that is tolerant, inclusive, welcoming and generous.

"For hundreds of years people have come to our shores to seek a new and better life. Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in the seventeenth century. Jewish people fleeing the pogroms of the nineteenth century, or the evils of Nazism in the 1930s and 40s. And in the 1970s the Ugandan Asians seeking to escape Idi Amin.

"Britain has provided a safe haven for these people and others like them. People that include the father of my Conservative colleague, Michael Portillo, forced to abandon his native Spain at the end of the Civil War to avoid imprisonment or death because of his political beliefs.

"I value the great contribution so many have made to our economy and our national life. People who have often come here with literally nothing more than the clothes they were wearing who have gone on to grasp the opportunities that our country has provided.

"Each new group of settlers has enriched our islands. Each has widened and advanced our sense of what it means to be British. And I am determined that we should never abandon our proud tradition of offering sanctuary to those who are fleeing injustice and wrong. It is the duty of any democracy committed to protecting people's freedoms and upholding their human rights. It is the hallmark of a civilised nation.

"Yet that tradition is now under threat as never before. Not because our people have lost their sense of hospitality. Not because we are unwilling to honour our obligations to genuine refugees. And not because the British people are racist or xenophobic.

"It is under threat because after four years of Labour, Britain's asylum system is in chaos.

"Labour said at the last Election that they would deliver a 'fair, fast and efficient system' for dealing with asylum applications.

"Instead, through their incompetence and mismanagement they have created a situation in which there is now sustained and systematic abuse of our asylum laws.

"They gave an amnesty to over 20,000 asylum seekers all of whom had either had their claims refused or hadn't even had them considered, sending out completely the wrong signal to those setting out to come here with unfounded claims.

"They introduced legislation to abolish the list of safe countries from where asylum applications would be fast tracked.

"And they refused to enforce the checks on illegal employment which we introduced. They said they would implement them but they have failed to do so. There were only eight prosecutions last year and one in the year before that.

"So it's little wonder that, as a result of Labour's policies, Britain is no longer just a safe haven. Britain has been turned into a soft touch.

"The chaotic system that we have now is both ineffective and unfair. It is unfair because the people who are losing out most are genuine refugees who are forced to wait for months or years in a queue along with thousands of bogus claimants.

"It is unfair too to people who have come to settle in this country and have obeyed our immigration rules. In my experience, some of the strongest advocates of firm action against the abuse of asylum have been people from Britain's black and Asian communities who have waited their turn, filled in the forms and gone through all the official hoops in order to bring a spouse or fiancé into this country but who now see others gaining an advantage by evading the law.

"We don't condemn economic migrants. Quite the contrary. Countries like the United States have been built by them. We recognise that people want to do the best for their families. But everyone knows that this country can't take in unlimited numbers of people who want to come to our shores for economic reasons.

"No - the real people to blame for this situation are those who have plunged the system into chaos in the first place. The longer the queue, the worse the administrative confusion, the greater the incentive is for racketeers to target their efforts on Britain. There is a direct link between Government incompetence in managing asylum cases and the surge in applications to stay here.

"The British people are not bigoted or ungenerous. They understand that Britain has responsibilities to those who have been displaced by war or persecution. In fact this is a principle shared by all the main political parties.

"The difference is that the other parties do not practice what they preach. They say one thing and do another. They try to fool the public, and only succeed in breeding cynicism, anger and resentment.

"Despite all the evidence that our asylum controls have broken down, the Government and the Liberals turn round and attack us for being prepared to put the principles we all share into effect.

"And yet common sense tells people that things are wrong when the number of people applying for asylum in Britain has more than doubled since 1997 and last year the figure reached a record 76,000 and, if you include dependents, nearly 100,000.

"They know things are wrong when even though nearly 80 per cent of those cases dealt with last year were refused, only 9,000 people were actually deported from Britain.

"They know things are wrong when the Government doesn't even know how many of those whose applications are turned down and appeal just disappear and remain in the country illegally, even though some estimates put it at over 115,000.

"They know that things are wrong when Britain receives more applications than any other European country, making us the asylum capital of Europe.

"They know things are wrong when tens of thousands of people are crossing the entire length of the European Continent, travelling through safe countries en route, before suddenly lodging an asylum claim in Britain.

"They know things are wrong when there is a large camp a couple of miles outside Calais filled with young men whose only purpose is to smuggle themselves into Britain.

"They know things are wrong when the genuine refugees are finding themselves elbowed aside in the queue by claimants who have been rehearsed in how to play the system.

"They know things are wrong when they look at the way Labour's dispersal and voucher schemes have been implemented so disastrously and have actually made the situation even worse. Worse, especially, for County Councils such as Kent, who have had to bear the cost of Labour's incompetence.

"The simple truth is that today our asylum system lies in pieces.

"Britain is the target of a miserable, violent and often tragic multi-billion pound international trade in asylum seekers. That's why we need a new approach. We need to make sure that people are properly deterred from seeking to enter the country in order to make unfounded applications. We need a system which makes it possible to process claims speedily, so that genuine refugees can be integrated into British life and bogus claimants are sent back home.

"Elect a Conservative Government on June 7 and the process of ending the racketeering and human trafficking will begin on June 8

"We will clear up Labour's asylum mess. Conservatives will ensure that Britain is a safe haven and not a soft touch. It makes common sense. And it's time for common sense on asylum. So here is what we will do.

"We will set up secure reception centres. We will detain all new applicants for asylum, whether port applicants or in-country applicants, in reception centres until their cases have been heard. This will enable us to ensure that people are adequately housed and supported while their claims are processed without having to resort to a complicated voucher and dispersal scheme. While at these centres, applicants will also be able to receive appropriate medical treatment, assistance with legal work and help with language difficulties.

"No one fleeing from persecution will object to being welcomed and cared for while their application is being determined.

"By ensuring that the centres are secure, we can make sure that people who are trying to evade immigration controls are kept in one place and are not able to disappear into the wider community. This policy will also allow people whose claims are refused to be removed quickly from this country.

"We shall take action to speed up asylum decisions and appeals. One of the benefits of our secure reception centres is that it would enable immigration officials to make determinations more quickly than is currently the case.

"We will deter unfounded applications from safe countries. I find it extraordinary that we receive applications for asylum from countries with good human rights records who have been formally accepted as candidates for EU membership.

"So the next Conservative Government will draw up a list of countries where we judge the rule of law is being properly enforced and from which we will not normally accept asylum applications. We will write into the law a presumption that a claim is unfounded if the applicant has either travelled directly from or began his journey in a safe country.

"We shall also make clear to our European partners that we expect them to fulfil their obligations. Under the Dublin Convention, asylum seekers should be dealt with by the first safe EU country they reach. Yet this is clearly not working. Frequently asylum seekers destroy their tickets so that it is difficult to prove exactly where they came from. As a result we see thousands of asylum seekers travel illicitly through safe and prosperous parts of Western Europe before choosing to declare that they are victims of persecution when they get to Britain.

"Surely it is reasonable to expect people fleeing persecution to apply for sanctuary as soon as they reach a safe country. We will seek to develop schemes whereby immigration officers concentrate on those planes we have good reason to believe might be carrying people seeking to abuse the system. We will press for intergovernmental agreement among the EU states not to turn a blind eye when their countries are being used as a stopover for asylum seekers trying to get to a neighbouring country. We will call on our European neighbours to take the Dublin Convention seriously.

"We will ensure that there are more removals of failed asylum seekers. When people have been refused asylum they should be removed from this country by a specialist agency without delay. We need to make clear to everyone that people whose claim for asylum is not justified will, quite simply, not stay in Britain.

"We need to inject common sense into the way the existing law is applied. So the next Conservative Government will ensure the penalties for businesses that illegally employ people are properly enforced. At the same time we will review that the system of automatic fines on lorry drivers which is being applied so unfairly at the moment.

"All of these measures will deter false applications and accelerate the progress of well-founded cases. People will know that if they claim asylum in Britain, then they will be detained and their cases will be dealt with quickly. Genuine refugees will then be welcome to stay while those whose applications fail will be guaranteed a speedy departure from our shores.

"A safe haven and not a soft touch. That is the Conservative common sense commitment on asylum. And Conservatives will deliver common sense."

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