Refugees `forced onto the streets'

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

The withdrawal of welfare benefits from asylum seekers was an unlawful attempt by ministers to deter refugees from seeking sanctuary in the UK which breached United Nations agreements, a High Court judge was told yesterday.

Since the benefit changes came into force last month 200 asylum seekers have been left penniless on the streets or in emergency night shelters - with more joining them every day - as they wait for the authorities to decide their claim.

Yesterday, Nicholas Blake QC said Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, had abused his powers when he introduced new rules which will affect about 30,000 asylum seekers.

The changes deny benefits to anyone who fails to make a claim the moment he or she enters the UK - even if they make their way straight to the Home Office on the day of arrival. They also deny benefits to those appealing against an immigration officer's refusal. As asylum seekers are not allowed to work for six months, they will have no means of survival.

Mr Blake, representing the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said the removal of benefits was inconsistent with the purpose of social security legislation.

It was, he alleged, motivated by the desire to deter asylum seekers, in breach of Britain's obligations under the UN Convention on Refugees.

The Government is contesting the claim. It had been due to fight on a double front, but it successfully put off an embarrassing High Court challenge by two London Tory councils by offering to pay 80 per cent of the extra charges the councils will incur by having to house refugee families.

The hearing continues today.