Monday, June 20, 2005

Asylum detentions 'breaking law'

Asylum detentions 'breaking law'

Amnesty International says the UK government is breaking the law by locking up too many asylum seekers before their claims are dealt with.

A report by the human rights group estimates 25,000 asylum applicants were held in detention centres during 2004.

It says many of these were vulnerable, such as pregnant women, families with children and torture victims.

The Home Office said detention powers were "essential" to ensure effective immigration controls.

It did not confirm the numbers stated in the report, but said it was committed to ensuring that everyone detained was treated with "humanity and dignity".

Asylum seekers can be held at any time during their application for refuge.

Ministers say the powers are needed to prevent people from absconding in the run-up to removal from the UK, and the government has tripled the number of detention spaces since 1997.

But the Amnesty says the government's use of detention for asylum seekers is a "lottery", dependent on the availability of beds rather than whether it is necessary or appropriate.

It says some people had been held without a final decision on their application for up to two years, a move it says is illegal because the detentions did not appear to be leading to removal from the UK.

The government's detention programme has been beset by problems including a riot that destroyed one centre, multiple incidences of self-harm, sporadic protests and a small number of suicides.

An undercover BBC documentary also exposed racism within the detention arm of the immigration service.

Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, said: "Seeking asylum is not a crime, it is a right."

She said thousands of people who had done nothing wrong were being locked up, and that there was no apparent reason behind many of the detentions.

"We found that languishing in detention with no end in sight had led to mental illness, self-harm and even to people trying to take their own life," she added.

"People who have sought asylum are being denied justice in the UK."

Fast-track detentions

Amnesty said its interviews with detainees found some people were being held for long periods with apparently little chance of removal from the UK for a variety of complex reasons.

It added that more asylum seekers selected for a "fast-track" decision were now being detained for all of their application, a concern echoed earlier this month by a human rights report from the Council of Europe.

A Home Office spokesman said the Amnesty report would be studied in detail, and that the government welcomed the opportunity to have a "sensible debate" about asylum issues.

"The power to detain an individual is an essential part of protecting the integrity and effectiveness of our immigration controls," said the spokesman.

"It is also essential that those we do detain should be treated with humanity and dignity and we are committed to ensuring that this is the case."

'Positive contribution'

But Maeve Sherlock, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said the report's evidence was stark.

"People are being detained arbitrarily, without proper consideration of whether it is appropriate or indeed necessary to do so," she said.

"Today marks the beginning of Refugee Week, when we celebrate the positive contribution refugees make to the UK and also reflect on why people seek sanctuary here.

"It can't be right to lock people up simply because they have asked for safety here - seeking asylum is not a crime."