Rt Hon Lord Lilley

    Last year nearly 100,000 people claimed political asylum in the UK. That is equivalent to the entire population of Hitchin and Harpenden. In practice, hardly any turn out to be genuine political refugees ? most are economic migrants ? yet the vast majority will remain and need to find homes in this country.

    That generates considerable resentment which is often directed at the asylum seekers themselves. That is completely wrong. Any blame and resentment should be directed at those in the courts, politics and the media who have created an irresistable incentive for economic migrants to come here. Even more pernicious are those portray anyone who seeks to tighten up the rules as a heartless friend of torturers and tyrants. The government too wants to suppress discussion but on Wednesday, 2nd February, the Opposition forced a debate in Parliament.

    By contrast even those asylum seekers who are economic migrants deserve our sympathy. They mostly come from miserably poor and disturbed countries to seek a better life for their families here. And they are only responding to the opportunities that have been created for them.

    A guarantee originally intended to help a handful of genuine political refugees who might escape from totalitarian dictatorships has been progressively broadened by the courts. As a result, Britain now effectively extends to everyone on the globe who can make it to our shores the legal right to enter this country to claim asylum, to receive welfare benefits, to obtain work after six months, to get free legal aid to appeal against refusal, and, by stringing out the process long enough, to stay indefinitely.

    No-one intended to create this loophole in the immigration laws. It was many years before economic migrants realised how to exploit it. And it took the development of relatively cheap mass transport to enable people to do so on a large scale.

    Now a great trade in human misery has developed. Most ?asylum seekers? have been induced to pay several thousand pounds to ?agents? who arrange their travel and help them exploit the asylum laws.

    It would be marvellous if we could help these economic migrants to build new lives in freedom. But by general consent Britain is too overcrowded already to be a country of immigration. So we must find ways of stopping this trade in human misery. The problem at present is that asylum claimants can string out the process for years on end. It is then difficult and often inhumane to deport them. They may have married, had children here, set up businesses and made friends. I find people who one day express near racist hostility to asylum seekers in general will the next day come to my surgery appealing against plans to deport a particular individual asylum seeker who, as a neighbour or colleague, has become a friend.

    The only humane approach is to establish a swift, streamlined but fair system of approving asylum claims. Those who are found to be economic migrants should be returned within weeks not years. The message would soon get round that although Britain is a safe haven for the small number of genuine refugees, it is no longer a soft touch for economic migrants.