Two High Court judges found it was unlawful for Britain to continue jailing up to 1,000 refugees a year for travelling through British airports on false passports.
Although many of these refugees speak no English, and are on their way to seek asylum in countries such as the United States and Canada, they are brought before the criminal courts and jailed for between six and nine months.
Many who are arrested at Heathrow airport end up in Wormwood Scrubs, west London, where the appalling conditions were the subject of a scathing report by the chief inspector of prisons recently.
But following a judicial review of three cases, the judges ruled that the practise was a breach of the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees 1951, to which Britain is a signatory. The convention's Article 31 rules that refugees should not be treated as criminals because they are in possession of false papers.
Lord Justice Simon Brown said: "The combined effect of visa requirements and [airline] responsibility has made it well nigh impossible for refugees to travel to countries of refuge without false documents."
But until now, refugees arriving at Heathrow, Gatwick and other ports and airports, have been prosecuted under the Criminal Attempts Act 1981, for obtaining a service - namely an airflight - by deception.
In the light of the judicial review, the Crown Prosecution Service has issued instructions to chief prosecutors that all proceedings against individuals who are subject to the 1951 convention should be dropped.
In his observations on the judicial review, Lord JusticeBrown said "there will be people in prison who should not be". The CPS said last night that the refugees would not be automatically released and would have to appeal against their convictions.
The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and other refugee support groups were last night trying to contact prisons and courts to make jailed refugees aware of their strong grounds for release. Eileen Bye, of the JCWI, said: "We now have several hundred people in our prisons [who] should not be there and certainly should not be the subject of a deterrent sentencing policy." She warned that many refugees who had been wrongly convicted now had a criminal record which could well jeopardise any claim for asylum.
In his judgment, Lord Justice Brown expressed his shock at the lack of regard for the UN convention. "Article 31 must henceforth be honoured," he said. The three challenges included one from Chouki Adimi, 31, an Algerian barman, who became the subject of death threats from religious extremists who denounced him as "an enemy of Islam".
Although he has been accepted for asylum in Britain, the CPS is prosecuting him for arriving in the country on a false Italian passport.
In the judgment, Mr Justice Newman said: "It is not obvious what interest would be served in prosecuting a refugee who is given leave to remain."Reuse content