Villages in uproar over new centres for refugees

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A network of up to 15 accommodation centres for asylum-seekers will be built across rural Britain, the Government announced yesterday, drawing an angry response from residents, MPs and campaign groups.

Lord Rooker, the Immigration minister, said planning permission would be sought for three centres in rural parts of Worcestershire, Oxfordshire and Nottinghamshire, and that a dozen more centres, catering for up to 22,500 people a year, might be opened.

The plans caused uproar in villages close to the proposed centres and were criticised by refugee support groups, which said they should be in urban areas.

Lord Rooker said the first three centres were intended for a Ministry of Defence site at Throckmorton in Worcestershire, a former RAF base near West Bridgford in Nottinghamshire and another MoD site at Bicester in Oxfordshire.

The centres, if given planning permission, would house up to 750 asylum-seekers each, and would provide specialist health, education and legal facilities.

The sites are among eight originally appraised. Assessments are continuing at three other possible sites: Sully Hospital near Cardiff; former RAF Turnhouse in Edinburgh; and RAF Hemswell, West Lindsey, Lincolnshire. Two potential sites have been rejected.

The announcement triggered an angry response from Keith Best, chief executive of the Immigration Advisory Service. He said the rural locations were "a recipe for racial tensions and will fan the flames of the right wing". Lord Rooker said the former Conservative MP's comments were "most unfortunate", and argued that the time had come for rural communities to play a part in hosting asylum-seekers.

The minister said "100 per cent" of asylum-seekers were currently housed in urban areas and that it was not possible to find large sites in cities suitable for building large and self-contained accommodation centres.

Nick Hardwick, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said the use of centres in rural areas had not been successful in other countries.

He said: "The experience of similar centres on the Continent, which are away from urban centres and where everything is provided on site, is that the asylum-seekers become very isolated and institutionalised and that those who are allowed to stay have huge problems properly integrating."

Local opposition groups have already been formed to fight each of the three proposed centres.

The proposed centre in Oxfordshire falls between the villages of Arncott and Piddington, which have a joint population of fewer than 700 people.

One Arncott villager, Dionne Arrowsmith, 37, of the Bicester Action Group, said: "David Blunkett is trying to tuck these people away in the middle of nowhere and, might I add, in strong Conservative seats.

"This area is very rural. There is nothing for them here, no facilities, no support services, nothing."

Lord Rooker said asylum-seekers would be given lots of what he described as "purposeful activity". He said: "There won't be time for wandering around the countryside because they will be too busy putting their asylum claim in."

The minister said the accommodation centres would allow the immigration department to have "more contact with our customer group". He said: "We want to see them often and frequently during the asylum process."

The Government believes the accommodation centres will make it easier for officials to locate and remove asylum-seekers whose claims have failed.

Officials envisage that residents of accommodation centres whose claims are rejected would be moved on to new removal centres – such as the riot-damaged Yarl's Wood site at Bedford – from where they would be deported.

Lord Rooker claimed yesterday that immigration lawyers and support groups – "the asylum legal trade" – were deliberately creating delays in the system for their own advantage. He said the bulk of asylum-seekers were economic migrants who had "deserted" their families.

He said: "The majority are young single men who have deserted their families for economic advantage, not to put too fine a point on it."

But he promised improved opportunities for legal migration to Britain so that illegal trafficking gangs would be put "out of business".