In 1990 there were just 25 applications from Algerians for political asylum in the UK. From the beginning of a barbaric civil war in 1992, the total has soared to more than 4,000

Patricia Wynn Davies looks at the reasons - and why almost all of them are being sent back

Yacine's story begins in 1994, two years after the outbreak of civil war in Algeria. Beside him sits Mohammed Sekkoum, chairman of the Algerian Refugee Council, based in the northern, untrendy, end of the London Borough of Islington. We have met in a cafe, drinking capuccinos and tea out of glasses. It's a meeting place for Algerians who have chosen the uphill struggle for refugee status in Britain instead of the horror and fear of their own country, where an estimated 100,000 people have met their deaths in the last five years.

I have no way of checking Yacine's story. Yacine is the name he has picked to hide his identity - few Algerians are confident enough to talk at all, let alone under their own names. But during a lengthy conversation no alarm bells ring, no grounds for doubting the story suggest themselves. With the help of Mohammed, the story is told in a mixture of Algerian Arabic, French and English.

Mohammed has the face of the 29-year-old he is, but the black curly hair framing his pale olive skin is going grey. He had been combining his occupation as an accountant with membership of the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the movement poised to win the 1992 parliamentary elections had the contest not been cancelled by a government dominated - as it has been since independence in 1962 - by the military.

Yacine was involved in what he calls the FIS "social" department - collecting money, delivering leaflets, preparing meetings and demonstrations "to help poor people". The FIS has an armed wing, the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), but this is the less hard-line of the armed opposition groups. The Armed Islamic Group (GIA), itself split into factions, has proclaimed that they will kill "all those who are not with us".

The complex web of increasingly extreme tendencies has led to the targeting of journalists, intellectuals, trades unionists, lawyers and independence war veterans as well as political leaders and members of the police and security forces and their families. The government has become increasingly hard-line too, banning protests, shutting down newspapers and torturing and killing opponents. Growing numbers of innocent civilians are being murdered, sometimes by beheading or having their throats cut, by armed opposition groups or security forces - often no one knows which.

Yacine and his friends operated from the district of Bab-el-Oued, an FIS stronghold in the centre of Algiers. When a warning came that the security forces were looking for Yacine, some of the group had already been arrested. Everyone had heard about what had become the routine and unflinching barbarism in Algerian jails. "I went over the Moroccan border. A group of people got me a French passport," he says. From Dar-el-Beida he flew to Spain and then to Britain. And it was here he was to experience jail first, after notching up the first black mark with the immigration service by not claiming asylum on arrival. He had sent back the false French passport so it could be used again. "I was waiting for some papers," he says. "I wanted some evidence before I claimed asylum. At that time I could not prove even that I was Algerian." He was picked up three weeks later, by chance, when an Algerian friend he was staying with was arrested. After going on hunger strike in a detention centre he was sent to prison. He stayed in jail for five months while his application was processed and refused. "I am not a criminal. I have claimed asylum," he would tell jail staff. But he says the immigration authorities were unimpressed. As deportation loomed he went on hunger strike again after being moved to a different jail. "I was 64 days without food, just water and sugar. I lost 20 kilograms."

Algerian policemen were waiting for him on his arrival in Algiers in January 1995. "They had a blue paper with my photo on it," he says. The torture began at the Algiers police headquarters.

"I was stripped. They started beating with sticks and iron sticks. They poured water from a jug - about five litres, -into my mouth when I was lying down. They said when you want to say something, knock on the floor or shake your head. You feel you are going to die. Then they took me to the toilet."

It is getting more complicated to explain. Mohammed suggests he draws a diagram in my notebook. He draws a body on a plank of wood tilted down towards a toilet in the floor. Lying face up on the plank with his face nearest the bowl, his tormentors repeatedly doused his face with urine and faeces. Someone else beat the soles of his feet. The window was open, letting in cold air. In between dousing him with the contents of the toilet, they doused him with cold water. "`You'll get rheumatism', they said."

Mohammed was blindfolded and taken elsewhere. "The torture was different there. They gave shocks in my ears and on my lips and heart. The cell was dark but I could see light when I was having the shocks." He was there for 15 days before being taken to the notorious Serkadji prison, where security forces killed more than 100 prisoners, many political detainees, in February 1995. Yacine was so ill that he was immediately removed to the psychiatric wing of Ain-Nadja military hospital. The FIS organised an escape to Spain by ship. He took another ship to Plymouth, entering Britain with false Italian papers 10 days ago. Despite all that went before, he believes he can convince the UK authorities that they made a mistake the first time.

Another 29-year-old, who uses the name Beca, has been waiting to talk and makes to leave. Mohammed, who was a vet in Algeria until he fell foul of the authorities 10 years ago, persuades him to stay. "They must tell their story," he says. Mohammed points to others in the room, a man whose brother recently died in Algeria, another who is a journalist.

After the GIA issued a statement that "those who live by the pen shall die by the sword", Human Rights Watch reported that Algeria was the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist.

Beca comes as a surprise. He cannot sit at the same table as Yacine - because Beca was a policeman in Algeria, though he doesn't look it now. He has grown his hair. He has been in the UK for two years and is awaiting the outcome of an appeal against a refusal to remain. He says he would be arrested as a deserter if he was returned to Algeria.

Beca had been a traffic policeman until he was trained as a detective. "We had to learn how to hit targets, how to torture people. We were taught to tie people to chairs, like hairdressers' chairs, and immobilise the head. There would be a drip, drip, drip of water on the head, for five or six hours."

The anti-terrorist groups would fix people to ladders by their arms and then push them over when they were unable to save themselves. They would get a sponge soaked in dirty water and put it in a person's mouth. They would make a man put his genitals by an open drawer, then close it.

"I was involved one day, in the Casbar area. They knew someone had a gun and I was working there. We invaded his house and took him to the local police station. The anti-terrorist brigade joined us. They kept his hands on the table and nailed a piece of wood on them. Nobody can do that job."

His revulsion at being compelled to do the job forced him, along with many other policemen, to flee. But he has never seen a policeman accepted for asylum in the UK. Mohammed knows of one, though plenty more apply. Despite the minute numbers of Algerians accepted as refugees within the terms of the 1951 UN Convention or given exceptional leave to remain, everyone looks incredulous when I ask, for the record, if they had ever considered France, Algeria's former colonial master. Suspicious of racism and the links to the Algerian regime, few asylum-seekers would now feel secure applying to France, I am told. Most applicants, however, will not be permitted to stay in Britain.

In 1995, 1,865 asylum applications came from Algerians. Of the cases concluded, 15 were judged to have a well founded fear of persecution and accepted as refugees under the 1951 convention. Ten others were given exceptional leave to remain on humanitarian grounds because their individual circumstances meant it might not be safe to return them. Asylum refusals from that year's applicants have so far totalled 720: 540 have been refused both asylum and exceptional leave to remain; 120 were sent back to the "third countries" which were their first port of call and 65 were refused for failing to comply with requirements, including being interviewed.

For many, it will have been the familiar, depressing story: lack of evidence to surmount a burden of proof stacked against an applicant; lack of back-up and support; saying or doing the wrong thing at the wrong time; misunderstandings about the way things are done in other continents; suspicion; bad lawyers and bad luck.

Nick Hardwick, chief executive of the British Refugee Council, says: "I have met Algerians who have had asylum claims rejected, not because they don't face danger in Algeria but because the Home Office says they will be protected by the Algerian government." Over at the Foreign Office, a Category One warning to potential visitors from Britain is in place, advising against any visits by Britons, including those wanting to conduct essential business.

Listening to these stories of how people have been thrown out of this country and tortured in their own, I was reminded of what Baroness Blatch, the Home Office minister of state, said during the House of Lords Second Reading of the 1996 Asylum and Immigration Act.

"We are determined to honour this country's well known tradition of harbouring those who flee here in genuine fear of persecution."

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