Dismay as Howard signals new asylum-seekers' law

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent.

The Home Secretary yesterday confirmed his determination to close the door to refugees from certain countries, prompting allegations that the Government will play the "race card" in the run-up to the next general election.

Meanwhile, refugee groups claimed he had already begun operating the controversial scheme, under which some countries are placed on a so-called "white list" of nations, considered "safe" and unlikely to produce genuine refugees. In such cases there would be a presumption that asylum claims were unfounded.

Since May this year, asylum seekers from seven named countries have been placed on a "fast-track" system, which has enabled decisions to be made in their cases within five days - a process that can take many weeks, if not months.

Although the Home Office maintained last night that the "short procedure pilot" scheme was designed purely to speed up administration Amnesty International and other refugee welfare groups, maintain it has been a dry run for the new Asylum and Immigration Bill, to be included in the Queen's Speech.

They say the trial scheme - affecting asylum-seekers from Ghana, Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Romania and Poland - will be put on a formal basis through the new Bill, which will then curtail their appeal rights. They believe that for many of the countries on the list there is overwhelming evidence of persecution or torture.

Coming on top of plans to severely curtail asylum-seekers' rights to benefit and to heavily restrict their rights of appeal, refugee and human rights groups declared the notion of asylum would be all but dead in this country. Richard Dunstan, of Amnesty International, said the setting up of the pilot scheme signalled an intention to demolish the existing process and amounted to a Government abdication of its obligations under international law.

Added to the proposal to fine employers of illegal immigrants and to get public employees, like health administrators and teachers to perform immigration checks, the Bill is seen by opponents as a fundamental attack on the black community.

Labour last night pledged to fight the Bill through Parliament. Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "I cannot see how Britain can maintain its UN obligations to refugees, if it proceeds."

Yesterday Mr Howard insisted: "You will find most European countries employ a similar form of control. We are seen as a very attractive destination because of the ease with which people can gain access to jobs and benefits."

Claude Moraes, director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said: "The use of an inflexible, rigid list of this sort will inevitably lead to some asylum seekers being sent back to torture, persecution and possibly death."

Curbs 'too tight', page 2

Andrew Marr, page 23

Leading article, page 22