Britain to repatriate Afghan refugees

Hundreds of Afghans living in Britain will be sent back to Afghanistan in the latest attempt by the Government to make a drastic reduction in the number of asylum-seekers.

Ministers have confirmed that the first enforced repatriation of those Afghans regarded as economic migrants will begin next month.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, has persuaded the Afghan government to sign up to the repatriation deal on the grounds that the Afghans whose applications had been rejected were no longer at risk of persecution.

The Government faces a renewed attack on its immigration policy after the publication on Friday of official figures showing 110,000 asylum applications were made in 2002, an increase of 20 per cent on 2001.

Mr Blunkett said: "The situation in Afghanistan has changed considerably in recent months and we have now agreed with the Afghan government that we will start enforced returns of failed asylum-seekers from April."

Secret plans for the latest hardline policy to reduce the numbers seeking asylum were first revealed in The Independent on Sunday last year. Around 700 Afghans a month apply for asylum in Britain and, along with Iraqis, they represent the largest number of applications.

For many years, it has been impractical for the Immigration Service to return failed asylum-seekers to Afghan-istan because of war, the political situation or the lack of direct flights from Britain.

According to the Refugee Council, no one has been sent back to the country since 1978, with the exception of a group who returned voluntarily in February 2000 after arriving at Stansted airport on a hijacked flight.

The Government agreed to accept as many as 200 Afghans after the closure of the Sangatte refugee camp in northern France. They have now been offered the opportunity to work in Britain.

Yesterday, Trevor Phillips, the new head of the Commission for Racial Equality, also criticised plans to build reception centres in rural areas instead of in cities.

In an interview with the BBC's Today programme, Mr Phillips said authorities should take advantage of the existence of settled ethnic minority communities in cities like London and Birmingham to help integrate incomers.

"I am sympathetic to the view that where there are successful multi-ethnic communities, we should take advantage of that," said Mr Phillips who takes up his CRE post this week.

Adding that the number of people allowed to stay in the UK was relatively small, Mr Phillips also denounced as "hysteria" the recent wave of concern over levels of asylum-seekers. He pledged to reach out to white communities who felt threatened by the arrival of migrants.

Mr Phillips dismissed the British National Party, which has tried to gain support by attacking the Government's immigration policy, as "a small group of vicious propagandists". But he said that there were "real, decent people" who had felt the need in recent times to cast a vote for the BNP.

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