A £4.5m solution that has created more headaches

High Court judge's decision that Oakington reception centre is illegal throws the Government's strategy into further disarray
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The Independent Online

When Oakington immigration reception centre was created from a former RAF barracks in Cambridgeshire, it was to be the centrepiece of the Government's asylum strategy.

When Oakington immigration reception centre was created from a former RAF barracks in Cambridgeshire, it was to be the centrepiece of the Government's asylum strategy.

At the time the site was chosen in 1999, ministers were alarmed by public concern over record numbers of asylum-seekers and an enormous backlog of applications. Jack Straw, who was Home Secretary, believed that by holding applicants at a secure processing centre, officials would be able to deal with their claims in a "fairer, faster, firmer" manner.

Immigration chiefs hoped the new facility would enable them to reduce the asylum backlog. Privately, they thought the fenced-off camp would make it difficult for unfounded claimants to abscond and would discourage other asylum-seekers from heading to the UK.

The decision yesterday by a High Court judge, Mr Justice Collins, that Oakington is unlawful, has thrown the whole asylum system into renewed disarray.

The £4.5m centre, which was run by the private security company Group 4, attracted controversy from the moment it opened in March last year.

Ministers had hoped that Oakington would process 13,000 people a year but in its first 17 months the centre has dealt with only 8,916 applicants, plus 2,239 dependants. The total running cost of Oakington in its first year was nearly £13m.

About five out of six Oakington applications have been turned down but most appeal. As of June, 884 out of 6,182 applicants who passed through Oakington were sent to detention centres or prisons. The remainder were housed under the Government's dispersal system or went to stay with friends or relatives while their claim was dealt with.

Asylum-seekers sent to Oakington are detained for between seven and 10 days. Facilities include a small library, gym, five-a-side football pitch and satellite television. Detainees are given access to independent legal advice provided by refugee law groups. But crucially they have no access to bail and are not allowed to leave the Oakington site, which is patrolled by private security guards.

During the High Court hearing in July which led to yesterday's ruling, Rick Scannell, appearing for the four Iraqi Kurds, said officials claimed that "Oakington Week" involved "a relaxed regime with minimal physical security". But that did not square with other evidence of constraints imposed by the "house rules", which required detainees at the former military barracks to vacate and return to their dormitory when required.

David Pannick QC, appearing for the Home Secretary, said no one had been misled at any stage about the basis of the Oakington policy. Asylum-seekers were being detained for a proper purpose, which was the examination of their asylum claim, followed by a decision on whether to grant or refuse permission to enter the UK.

The Government has said it will appeal against yesterday's ruling but if it fails to overturn the judgment, ministers are faced with a series of options.

Refugee support groups hope that they will pull down the fences and turn Oakington into a genuine reception centre.

But the Government may choose to upgrade the camp into another detention centre, where it can lawfully hold people if they are believed to be likely to abscond. There are currently 1,800 people detained under the Immigration Act, of which 1,100 are held in prisons.

The tangled web of factors drawing refugees to Britain

Q. Why do so many asylum-seekers come to the United Kingdom?

A. There were a record 76,000 asylum applicants last year. According to Daniele Joly, director of the University of Warwick's Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations, the key pull factor is the presence in this country of an established community of fellow countrymen. The second biggest attraction is historical and cultural ties, including language.

Q. Where are the asylum-seekers from?

A. The biggest source nations for applications last year were Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Somalia and Sri Lanka. All are countries with historical links to Britain and established communities in London and other British cities.

Q. Don't they see Britain as a soft touch or an El Dorado?

A. Although the asylum policy of a country is likely to be considered by asylum-seekers in choosing their destination, those that elect to come to Britain are by-passing more generous policies in Sweden. And although some asylum-seekers are economic migrants, those that are looking for easy work are ignoring a larger black economy in Italy.

Q. Why are asylum-seekers not sent back to France?

A. For the reasons explained above, asylum-seekers from certain countries prefer to come to Britain and will not make a claim in France.

The French government does not feel it has an obligation under the Dublin Convention to accept such people because they have travelled through countries other than France.

Q. What is the Dublin Convention?

A. A largely discredited agreement among European Union member states requiring that asylum-seekers make their applications in the first state in which they arrive. Many asylum-seekers are smuggled across borders and are unsure of where they entered the EU. They are unwilling to claim asylum anywhere else than in the destination of their choice.

Q. What is the Geneva Convention?

A. Introduced in 1951 after the Nazi atrocities against the Jews, it guarantees individuals the right to claim asylum from persecution. Britain is a signatory. France and Germany interpret the Convention as not covering non-state persecution, such as domestic violence, homophobia or attacks by rebel terrorist organisations.

The Refugee Council is calling for a common standard across Europe, with all countries recognising non-state persecution.