The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, suffered a humiliating High Court defeat yesterday which could result in hundreds of asylum-seekers being released from a flagship immigration centre.
In a judgment that throws the Government's immigration policy into disarray, Mr Justice Collins ruled that four Iraqi Kurds had been unlawfully held at the £4.5m Oakington centre in Cambridgeshire in breach of their human right to liberty.
The Home Office now faces compensation claims running into millions of pounds from some of the 11,000 asylum-seekers who have been detained at the centre. Mr Blunkett, who immediately announced an appeal, was said to be "deeply disturbed" by the ruling.
The solicitor representing the four claimants said the judgment was a "landmark ruling". Michael Hanley said: "My clients felt they were in prison in Oakington. They will be pleased that other asylum-seekers will hopefully not be subjected to the same treatment."
He put the amount of damages involved in a 10-day detention at between £5,000 and £10,000 per person and suggested hundreds of other claims might be made.
The judgment is a devastating blow to the Government's immigration policy as Oakington was the centrepiece of its "fairer, faster, firmer" asylum strategy. Opened in March last year, it was designed to process 13,000 asylum applications a year. Asylum-seekers are held at the former RAF barracks for seven to ten days while "fast-track" decisions are made on their claims.
Home Office lawyers argued that Oakington was a reception centre not a detention facility and that the holding of asylum-seekers there was lawful. But the Kurds argued that there was no reason to believe that they would abscond and that the Government had no right to deprive them of their liberty.
Mr Justice Collins said: "I am satisfied that the detention of all the claimants was not lawful. Once it is accepted that an applicant has made a proper application for asylum and there is no risk that he will abscond or otherwise misbehave, it is impossible to see how it could reasonably be said that he needs to be detained to prevent his effecting an unauthorised entry."
The judge suspended making a formal declaration that the detention of the four men was unlawful to remove the possibility of a flood of similar court actions ahead of the Court of Appeal hearing in early October.
He said he was not saying that "no one detained at Oakington is lawfully detained". But in the case of the claimants, detention was unlawful because it was imposed "to enable there to be speedy determination of their applications".
The four Iraqi claimants all reached Britain last December. Dr Shayan Saadi arrived on a flight to Heathrow. Zhenar Maged, Rizgan Mohammed and Dilshad Osman arrived at Dover, hidden in lorries. They were taken to Oakington before being dispersed around the country while their appeals against refusal of their claims were considered. Three appeals have since been upheld.
A Home Office spokesman said Oakington, which is run by the private security firm Group 4, would remain open while an appeal was being prepared.
Campaigners for the rights of asylum-seekers said the High Court ruling was "a credit to British justice". Habib Rahman, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Refugees, said: "This Government forced people who were fleeing tyranny to jump from the frying pan into the fire. This decision throws the asylum policies of Labour and the Conservatives into disarray."
Nick Hardwick, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said the Government should reconsider the position of other asylum-seekers who are held in detention centres and prisons. "The fundamental principle at stake here is whether it is right to detain people who have committed no crime," he said.