The number of people applying for asylum in Britain has fallen to its lowest level in more than a decade, new Home Office figures reveal.
But the government admitted that it has still not met its target on removing failed asylum seekers, despite predicting that it would do so this month.
Today’s figures showed there were 25,720 asylum applications in 2005, down 24% on the previous year and the lowest level since 1994.
Tony McNulty, immigration minister, said: “Intake [of asylum seekers] is falling at a faster rate than elsewhere in Europe, reflecting the package of measures we have put in place, such as immigration controls to ports across the Channel and legislation to target abuse.”
The statistics also show that removals of failed asylum seekers rose by 2% in the last quarter of 2005 and 20% on the same quarter the previous year. This comes after the government increased cash incentives for asylum seekers who agree to leave the UK voluntarily.
The government had pledged to be removing more failed asylum seekers than the number of unfounded asylum applications each month by December 2005.
After it missed this target, Mr McNulty predicted that it would be reached in February. However, the minister admitted that it had still not been met, but was “confident that we are close to achieving it”.
In the last quarter of 2005 there were 6,165 asylum applications. Iranians were the largest single group of asylum seekers with 820 applications, followed by Eritreans (595) and Afghanis (510).
The figures also showed that the number of eastern Europeans applying to work in Britain has increased to 345,000 since Poland, the Czech Republic and six other countries joined the EU in May 2004.
Research commissioned by the government had previously estimated that annual applications from the eight accession countries would not exceed 13,000.
The 50,000 EU accession arrivals in the three months to December last year was 8,000 higher than in the same period in 2004. Poles accounted for 59% of applicants, followed by Lithuanians (13%) and Slovaks (11%).
East Anglia overtook London as the destination for the most foreign workers, with 16% compared with the capital’s 15%.
Mr McNulty said there was no evidence that new workers from eastern Europe were responsible for a rise in unemployment last year. He said they made a “welcome contribution to our economy and society”.
David Davis, the shadow home secretary, said: “The government is still taking too long to remove those whose applications have failed. It is disappointing to see that the government continues to fail even to remove more failed asylum seekers than arrive.”
More information on asylum seekers was needed, he said. “The government cannot tell us how many people are living here illegally, including how many failed asylum seekers remain in the country. It also cannot tell us the impact of migration on public services. How many children of temporary migrants are in state schools? How many temporary migrants are receiving NHS treatment? How many are receiving in-work benefits?”
Mr Davis claimed that the number of workers arriving from EU accession countries was “wholly uncontrolled”. “The fact the number of immigrants from EU accession countries who have come to Britain is 15 times the government’s own maximum estimate is a further indictment of how it has no grasp on the facts and figures of immigration,” he said.