Anger over army camp plan for asylum seekers

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The Independent Online

Plans by the Government to detain 20,000 asylum seekers under military guard in army camps was yesterday criticised as a clear breach of international treaties.

Downing Street and the Home Office yesterday confirmed the existence of contingency plans, drawn up in case there was a mass influx of asylum-seekers this summer, but said they may not need to be introduced. "We do not expect any increase in the numbers seeking asylum, therefore we do not expect to implement any of these proposals," said Number 10.

A leaked Home Office letter revealed that Barbara Roche, a Home Office minister, had asked her officials to produce plans "to detain a much higher proportion of people to act as a deterrent in the event of a surge."

Stephen Boys Smith, the director general of the Home Office's immigration and nationality directorate, said that close to 20,000 places would be needed if the option of using former Ministry of Defence camps was pursued. In a letter to Ms Roche, he said: "An increase to 10,000 [asylum applications a month] or more might take us into crisis mode. We have also assumed that you might wish to have the ability to detain all or the vast majority while their cases were considered."

Mr Boys Smith revealed the MoD had warned it might not have enough former bases that could be taken out of mothballs at short notice. A few hundred places would be needed at about 20 locations, supplemented by temporary buildings.

"Perhaps the more serious problem is how to staff the facilities. Most satisfactory for us would be for military personnel to secure the perimeter. The MoD is clear that it cannot give a commitment always to have sufficient personnel available," he said.

Mr Boys Smith warned that there would be "numerous legal issues" to resolve about the proposal. "We should clearly not get into mass detentions unless we can see a way through the legal, procedural and practical issues associated with resolving the cases and removing failed applicants."

Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on Home Affairs, said the proposal would breach the international treaties on refugees and would make Britain the only country in Europe which detained all asylum-seekers. They should only be kept under lock and key if there was a reasonable suspicion they would abscond or they had a criminal record. "It would not be justified to have general detention just to look tough and deter others," he said. "The Government does not appear to have got the message that general detention would be wrong in principle and against our international obligations."

David Lidington, a Tory Home Affairs spokesman, said the proposal revealed the Government was copying William Hague's plan to detain all new applicants for asylum. "It accused us of being racist and stirring up passions unnecessarily whereas, actually, it is now recognising the truth and common sense of what we are proposing," he said.