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UK plays asylum card to expand visa biometric scheme

East Africans get dabbed after wild success (nine dangerous fraudsters nicked) of Sri Lanka pilot

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The UK Home Office has announced the next step in its love affair with biometrics. As of March, visa applicants in five east African countries will be required to provide a record of their fingerprints. This is what applicants for visas for the US have to do these days, but in Britain we appear to be going for the thin end of the wedge rather the 'fingerprint the lot of them' counterstrike favoured by the Brazilians.

The Home Office move is an initiative to tackle asylum abuse rather than to guard against terrorism and, says the announcement, "is part of a Government action plan to tackle unfounded asylum claims from Somali nationals and fraudulent claims by individuals claiming to be Somalis [and] represents the next step in the Government’s phased roll-out of biometric technology to tackle immigration abuse."

"We know that a significant proportion of asylum seekers claiming to be Somali are actually from neighbouring east African countries," says Home Office Minister Beverley Hughes. Indeed, and as the announcement says, that significant proportion is 10 per cent. The Home Office also knows, via its research service, how many asylum applicants claiming to be from Somalia it has. That number, for Q3 2003, was 1,440, which means that for that quarter the number of people it reckons applied for a visa in east Africa and on arrival, destroyed their documents and claimed to be Somali, was 144. Somali applications represented about ten per cent of the total for that quarter.

The UK currently receives in the region of 150,000 immigrants per year, while total asylum applications for 2002 were 84,130. An estimated 42 per cent had some success (grants of asylum, 10 per cent; exceptional leave to remain, 23 per cent; allowed appeals, 10 per cent).

So at the current rate we can assume fingerprinting all of the visitors from Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda (Kenya to follow) will help catch 600 fraudulent applicants a year. We can't go on historical numbers, because Somali applicants went up 60 per cent from Q2 to Q3, and we can't say it will be wholly responsible for catching them, because many of them are already being caught by other means.

Nowhere in the announcement does the Home Office tell us how much it will cost to equip the relevant visa offices with the technology. It does however reveal that the east African initiative follows "a successful pilot" with Sri Lanka which ran for six months from July 2003. This "led to the identification of seven undocumented asylum applicants who destroyed their passports after entering the UK, and a further two people have been prosecuted." Nine collars fingered in six months - outstanding. But it was such a success (sic) that the Sri Lanka project is being extended. There were 4,285 asylum applicants from Sri Lanka in 2002, with 3,670 of these refused. ®

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