Civil rights groups and lawyers said that the appeal judges' ruling gave Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, carte blanche to use imprisonment to deter asylum seekers.
Concerned that asylum seekers could be held in jail for many months without any right of appeal, they called for new legislation to enable them to apply for bail until their asylum claim was decided.
Last month, in a ruling that sent a wave of euphoria through the 600 asylum seekers held in British detention centres and jails, Mr Justice Dyson said in the High Court that people who had entered the country illegally and claimed political asylum could not be held in custody under the 1971 Immigration Act.
He ruled that four men - Rehmat Khan, from Pakistan, and Parmjett Singh Virk, Inderpal Singh and Pal Taggar, from India - were being "illegally detained" through misuse of the United Kingdom's immigration laws.
But lawyers for the Home Secretary had argued that the ruling would also have led to the release of many illegal immigrants and would encouraged others to claim asylum to by-pass immigration rules and then abscond. And yesterday, Lord Justice Leggatt, sitting with Lord Justice Otton and Sir Ralph Gibson, said that the men's detention had been "justifiable". They said: "Parliament cannot have intended that any illegal entrant who is apprehended can, by claiming asylum, avoid detention unless and until his asylum claim is investigated and dismissed. That he could then be detained would be irrelevant if he could no longer be found." In a statement issued after his court victory, Mr Howard said the judgment endorsed the immigration policy as it stood. "TheGovernment pursues its immigration policy firmly and fairly. Detention of asylum seekers is only used as a last resort," he said. "Less than 1 per cent of asylum seekers are detained. They are only detained if it is felt that they would not voluntarily comply with restrictions placed on their release. The vast majority of those who have sought asylum remain in the community while their cases are considered," he said.
But lawyers and refugee groups rounded on Mr Howard. Helen Bamber, director of the Medical Foundation for Victims of Torture, said that neither she nor Amnesty International knew of any cases where asylum seekers had fled after being released from custody.
"Many of these people have escaped torture and persecution only to find themselves incarcerated.
"I despair for British justice. I cannot think of any other situation where someone can be held in jail for many months without charge or trial. It is a denial of basic human rights," she said.
Claude Moraes, director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said refugees had fewer rights than criminals and the judgment would now enable the Home Office "to put detention at the heart of its policy".
The four men were all on bail pending yesterday's judgment, and they immediately surrendered to immigration officials outside the court.
However they were released, on condition that they report to police until they learn the result of their claims for refugee status.Reuse content