Special zones for asylum seekers

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THE HOME Secretary is to assume new powers to commandeer council homes for use by asylum seekers. The plan, to force local authorities around Britain to set up new "Reception Zones", forms part of the Immigration & Asylum Bill published yesterday.

The move by Jack Straw is bound to provoke criticism that the Government risks creating ghettos in unwanted housing in regional towns and cities. The Bill states that if the Home Secretary was "unable to secure sufficient accommodation by voluntary agreement with the local authorities of an area" he may commandeer the identified properties for the purpose of housing asylum seekers."

Yesterday the Home Office minister Michael O'Brien said the refugees would not be placed in "sink estates". He said: "The aim is to put them in clusters in areas where there's an element of support. We think it's on this basis that the asylum seekers don't all filter back to London and the South-east."

The Government hopes to take the financial burden off councils in London and nearChannel ports by paying authorities in other areas to house refugees at a rate of pounds 165 a head to cover accommodation and living costs.

The Bill, which Mr Straw described as the "most comprehensive overhaul" of the immigration system for decades, states that asylum seekers would be paid in vouchers not cash. Those who refuse to remain in their allocated accommodation will automatically lose their right to support.

Mr Straw said: "If you are just trying to take us for a ride and you mess about and place yourself in a position where you can no longer receive support,that's your decision."

Among new measures designed to curb illegal immigration is an end to so-called "quickie marriages" by requiring couples to give 15 days' notice of their intention to wed.

A crackdown on unscrupulous immigration advisers will include an annual charge of pounds 6,300 for any firm wishing to practice in this area. The Government also hopes to save around pounds 500m a year by introducing a new fast-track process based on a single and comprehensive right of appeal. It aims to make an initial decision on a case within two months.

A fine of pounds 2,000 per illegal immigrant is to be imposed on the drivers of vehicles who smuggle people into the country.

The Bill includes plans for a new financial bond scheme whereby sponsors would be asked to make a payment as a guarantee of the intentions of a visitor to the United Kingdom. The money would be forfeited if visiting conditions were breached. Family visitors are to be given a right of appeal if their applications to visit British relatives are turned down.

Mr Straw produced figures showing that in 1998 most asylum seekers came to Britain from areas of conflict, notably the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. The exception was Lithuania, from where 1,300 refugees arrived last year, a pattern which Mr Straw described as "a racket".

He said the Government was also disposing of the controversial "White List" system, which imposes special visiting restrictions on selected nationalities, including Bulgarians and Romanians, and has caused diplomatic tension.