Anger at government U-turn over refugees

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THE GOVERNMENT plans to scatter asylum-seekers across the length and breadth of Britain to the horror of refugee support groups, who last night accused immigration officials of abandoning undertakings to place the refugees in big cities.

Plans drawn up in a letter by the head of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, leaked to The Independent, reveal that many asylum-seekers may be housed beyond metropolitan areas in nine extended zones that cover almost all of the country.

The letter, by the IND's director, Bob Eagle, reveals that "the cluster areas will not be limited to the metropolitan area, but will extend to cover a wide region including in each case a number of local authorities".

The Refugee Council said that the proposals would leave many asylum- seekers stranded in rural towns and coastal resorts which have little experience of multiculturalism and no specialist support services.

"This threatens to become exactly the Marmite policy of thinly spreading asylum- seekers that we were trying to avoid," said Rachel Rees for the Council. "They are turning Britain into one large cluster zone for asylum-seekers."

The programme was likely to be led by the availability of accommodation, often in out- of-season resorts and depressed industrial towns, she warned. "Any dispersal process which is accommodation-led runs the risk of placing already vulnerable people in isolated or deprived areas," she said.

The plan comes at a time of growing concern about the numbers of people claiming asylum in Britain and the adequacy of existing services. The Immigration minister, Barbara Roche, went on Czech television on Wednesday to warn potential economic migrants after a sharp increase in the numbers of asylum-seekers arriving in Britain from the Czech Republic. Hours after she spoke, 117 Kosovo Albanians were found in fields on the Kent marshes.

The plan to disperse asylum-seekers around Britain is designed to relieve the burden on London and the channel ports. Refugees will be paid in vouchers and their asylum applications dealt with in six months in an effort to make the system faster, firmer and fairer.

The Home Office advertised in local and national newspapers yesterday appealing for local authorities, private landlords and housing associations to offer accommodation for asylum-seekers.

Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Home Secretary, said the proposals risked damaging British tourism. "If you are using a hotel to house asylum-seekers you cannot use it to attract tourists," she said. "I suspect that seaside towns will have to take far more than their share."

But the Home Office expressed surprise at the concern raised by the plan and said refugee support groups had been fully consulted on them.

A spokeswoman said that every effort would be made to house asylum-seekers in areas with significant minority ethnic populations. "There is no intention whatsoever of putting them where they won't have the support that they need," she said. "We certainly don't intend that they will be isolated and cut off."