UN law meant UK was ‘attractive destination for asylum seekers’, New Labour told

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Prime Minister Tony Blair meets Kosovan refugees at the border crossing point between Kosovo and Macedonia, near Skopje (John Stillwell/PA) (PA Archive)
Prime Minister Tony Blair meets Kosovan refugees at the border crossing point between Kosovo and Macedonia, near Skopje (John Stillwell/PA) (PA Archive)

New Labour’s attempts to tackle immigration were partly thwarted by a UN protocol which meant the UK was fundamentally deemed an “attractive destination” for asylum seekers, internal memos suggest.

Home Office permanent secretary Sir David Omand said the 1951 Refugee Convention – which says refugees should not be sent back to a country where they face serious threats to their safety – and the “generous reception” given to people from the former Yugoslavia were partly to blame.

His concern was contained in a memo to Cabinet secretary Sir Richard Wilson in March 2000. Home Office figures at the time showed there were 6,680 asylum applications that month, up from 6,110 the previous month.

In his memo, contained within the latest tranche of declassified Cabinet files released by the National Archives in Kew, Sir David wrote: “The intake of asylum seekers is now running at double the rate when we published our plans and targets in 1998.

We have a situation where the UK is an attractive destination for asylum seekers, not least because of the interpretation of the 1951 Convention by our courts

Home Office memo 2000

“It was not our political intent but we have a situation where the UK is an attractive destination for asylum seekers, not least because of the interpretation of the 1951 Convention by our courts and the continuing interference in the administration of the system through judicial reviews.

“Our generous reception of Kosovars and Albanians, for the best reasons, has not helped.

“The message went back that the UK was a civilised place and that has spread across much of Eastern Europe. Modifying this message is hard.”

Prime minister Tony Blair replied: “Yes, but we have to deal with the root causes of this explosion in number and it will need tough action to do it.”

Figures showed asylum applications to the UK more than doubled in the first two years of Mr Blair’s premiership.

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