Prison plan for asylum seekers

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S FIRST specially designed "asylum-seeker jail" has been approved by the Government as part of its tough new proposals to deter illegal immigrants.

In a move likely to outrage refugee-rights groups, Aldington Prison in Kent will be converted into a detention centre for asylum-seekers this autumn, The Independent has learnt.

The former camp for prisoners of war is seen by the Home Office as "geographically and physically ideally suited", because it is close to the Channel Tunnel rail station at Ashford and the Channel ports.

HMP Aldington will be closed by the end of August and the site handed over to the Immigration Service, which is likely to bring in private security firms such as Group 4 to run the centre. The new unit will be run with a prison-style regime and will ease the pressure on jails. Following riots at low-security detention centres such as Campsfield House near Oxford, refugees with "acute control problems" will also be held at Aldington.

The majority of asylum- seekers are granted temporary admission pending the outcome of their claim, but more than 800 are detained at any one time under the 1971 Immigration Act. The Immigration Service holds some 10,000 people a year. Many are detained for several months only to be recognised later as genuine refugees. Ministers hope Aldington will be the first of a new generation of detention centres to separate refugees from other inmates.

Ministers point out that a record 46,000 asylum applications were made last year and overcrowding at Rochester Prison in Kent has caused serious concern at the Home Office. The centre will be backed up by similarly tough measures in the Immigration and Asylum Bill, which allows refugees to be detained indefinitely.

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, has decided to go ahead with the Aldington plan following pressure from the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, and the Prison Governors' Association, who say normal jails cannot cope with mixing prisoners and refugees.

The Home Office points to rising numbers of asylum- seekers and claims that between a quarter and a half of those allowed into the community will abscond. But both the Refugee Council and the Medical Foundation for the Victims of Torture have attacked the Aldington move and claim the Bill breaches the European Convention on Human Rights.

Alison Harvey, of the Medical Foundation, said the criminalisation of refugees, many of whom have suffered torture, should be resisted strongly. "Detention can severely re-traumatise people who have been imprisoned in their home countries. They suffer panic attacks, flashbacks and the isolation can quickly send them downhill," she said.

A spokeswoman for the Refugee Council said there were cheaper, more humane ways of preventing refugees from absconding, such as regular attendance at police stations or immigration centres.