Yesterday brought the shocking news that nearly a quarter of all terrorist suspects arrested in Britain since 9/11 have been asylum seekers. That was on the very same day that the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police was telling Radio 4’s Today programme that three major terrorist conspiracies had been broken up since the London Tube bombs in July.
Clearly, the police and security services are doing an excellent job. But why do they have to do it with one hand tied behind their backs?
It is now crystal clear that the asylum system is being abused by potential terrorists. A Parliamentary answer, slipped out on the last day of the session, revealed that, of 963 people arrested on suspicion of terrorist offences, 232 had lodged claims for asylum—some even after their arrest. At least 50 of these claims have been made in the past six months.
Why is this happening? Simple. Britain is a soft touch. A potential terrorist who claims asylum here can be sure of a year, perhaps two, at the British taxpayer’s expense while his case and his appeals are heard.
If he succeeds in bluffing the immigration courts he is in clover. He becomes entitled to the full benefits of our welfare state. If he fails, he can go underground and join the hundreds of thousands of failed asylum seekers whom the Government has still not removed from Britain.
You would think it was time that the Government got around to doing something effective about this. It is hardly a new problem.
The most notorious case was the Algerian who was in Britain illegally at the time he stabbed to death Special Branch detective Stephen Oake at a flat in Manchester in 2003, but there have been plenty more. The Government could start by analysing the countries from which these suspects are coming (or claiming to come from). Algeria, Pakistan and Iraq spring to mind but there may be other countries, for example in East Africa.
Then they could ensure that there is much tighter control over the issue of visas in these countries of concern. Research by Migration Watch, the organisation that I chair, has shown that many visitors from these countries are issued with visas after only a cursory interview.
But some will still get here and claim asylum. If they do, we should not let them loose on the streets. Those who pose a potential risk should be detained until their cases are decided on a special fast-track procedure.
This is already done for cases that are considered to be unfounded. It should now also be done when there is a potential for terrorism—even if it means expanding the number of detention places.
This leaves two major legal hurdles. The Government is working on one but ducking the other.
The first is the 1951 Refugee Convention. The Prime Minister has spoken of his frustration with this Convention. It was written 50 years ago for a few dozen people escaping from behind the Iron Curtain. Its authors would be astonished if they knew that it was now being applied to hundreds of thousands of people every year. Tony Blair has talked about revising it but nothing has happened.
Instead, the Government has found a loophole which they hope will help.
The Convention permits the refusal of asylum for those who have committed acts ‘contrary to the purposes of the United Nations’. So the Government is now going to legislate to make it clear that terrorist acts fall into this category.
Neat, if it works. But there is another more serious problem. How do we then get rid of them? For certain, the failed asylum seekers will claim that they would be subject to torture if they were returned to their own country.
They are probably right. Middle East governments do not have much truck with those who plot mass murder, wherever their targets might be.
This brings us slap up against the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)—another document that goes back more than 50 years to another time, another world.
Article Three of that Convention is one short sentence: ‘No one shall be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.’
It is hard to disagree with that. Nor is it a surprise that this Article has been interpreted as forbidding the return of people to countries where they might face such treatment.
Indeed, the recent row about CIA flights around the world focused on exactly this point.
So we are stuck. Even if we close off the Refugee Convention to terrorists, the ECHR prevents us from sending them home. And the House of Lords has even ruled that it is not lawful to detain them indefinitely.
The most that can be done is to put them under a form of house arrest.
This has serious implications. Britain could well become a haven for international terrorists. If they know that they only have to set foot in Britain and be safe for life then, surely, others will follow.
Indeed, the French and many Middle Eastern governments would claim that this is already happening. In principle, all other European countries should have the same problem but the position of London as an international centre for travel, finance and the media makes it a particular target for this purpose.
Can anything be done? Revising the ECHR is probably a non-starter; getting the agreement of more than 50 countries would be impossible. We could, however, withdraw altogether by giving six months’ notice.
The Convention has nothing to do with the EU—it comes under the Council of Europe—but, as usual, there are EU complications. References to the ECHR are enshrined in various EU treaties making withdrawal, at best, highly complicated.
If we could get out of the ECHR we could write our own human rights law to suit our own needs and the new circumstances we face.
We could, for example, give notice that, from a certain date, anyone convicted of a terrorist offence would be sent back to his home country on completion of his sentence and without further ado.
The usual argument against any changes to human rights law is that we would be doing the terrorists’ work for them. But would it really be ‘giving in to terrorism’ to send convicted terrorists packing after giving them due warning?
Human rights are of real importance. But the British people also have a right to expect serious measures to help protect them from suicidal terrorists.
The Prime Minister makes great play of his war on terror, but this legal log-jam makes London an international centre for terrorist activity. When will the Government face up to the need for action?