THE full picture of immigration into Wigan through people seeking asylum after fleeing their native lands has emerged for the first time.
Figures released by the Home Office under the Freedom of Information Act show just how complex the issue is at a time when the national debate on the subject is becoming increasingly toxic.
The statistics show 476 people have been the main claimant for asylum for themselves or their families while living in Wigan between October 2006 and the end of March 2014, with the numbers rising from 326 at the end of March 2013 and 265 12 months earlier.
A total of 399 asylum seekers and their dependents had been found houses in Wigan at the end of the 2014 fiscal year. Asylum seekers do not have a choice about where they live while waiting for a decision to be made but are scattered around the country using a quota system.
The figures also show how difficult successfully claiming asylum is, with 122 applicants being granted leave to remain in the UK between October 2006 and the end of September 2014, compared to 358 which were refused.
The average length of time for an application to reach a first outcome is 172 days, meaning most people claiming asylum in the UK can expect to spend around six months waiting to discover their fate.
The rising numbers of people seeking sanctuary in the UK was put down to the deteriorating situations and increased violence and instability in regions including the Middle East and north and sub-Saharan Africa.
The Home Office robustly defended Britain’s record of extending help to those in need, while the head of a leading Wigan charity working with asylum seekers and refugees said the figures showed there was no cause for public concern over the issue.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The United Kingdom has a long and proud history of offering sanctuary to those who genuinely need it and each claim is carefully considered on its individual merits.
“We remain committed to concluding all cases as quickly as possible. However, asylum cases are often complex and require full and thorough consideration before a decision is made.
“When someone is found not to need our protection, we expect them to leave the country voluntarily. Where they do not we will seek to enforce their departure.”
Chairwoman of the Support For Wigan Arrivals Project (SWAP), who asked to be named only as Cath, said: “Given the events going on around the world we are not surprised that the figures are growing, but British people should not be alarmed.
“If you watch the news you can understand there’s a link between what is happening in many countries and why people are giving everything up to try to find safety.
“I just think of the old saying about not judging someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes.”
However, Cath also said the reality of working with asylum seekers every day gives Swap’s team a rather different perspective on how the system is working.
Many of those who visit Swap for its drop-ins, activities and services have been waiting for decisions for more than two years, while one Eritrean applicant living in Wigan has endured eight years of applications, rejections, court appearances and appeals.
Cath said: “Our experience is somewhat different to the official figures. The system seems to have a lot of glitches in it and the Home Office’s budget is under pressure as well.
“At both ends of this there are human beings trying to cope. Some applications are taking a lot longer and people are living with this uncertainty over what is going to happen.”