Passport officers `target black people'

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent.

Immigration officers should be given specialist training to counter allegations of racism, according to the first report of the new complaints watchdog.

The Complaints Audit Committee highlights the cases of black British passport holders returning to the UK, who claimed they were singled out by immigration officers because of their colour. One was asked his religion, another asked to fill in a landing card and others asked how they obtained their passports.

It also details others who were asked about how they obtained their passport, and lists lawyers' concerns about insensitive and irrelevant questioning of asylum seekers, suggesting again that training and management skills be reviewed.

The report to Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, but leaked to the Independent, was also critical of the "poor standard" of airport and port holding areas where people are detained pending a decision in their case. "For some people this is their introduction to Britain; and for those refused leave to enter, it may be their only experience." Among its 14 recommendations, one asks that holding areas be made into the style of airport lounges with proper refreshments on offer.

Generally, however, the three committee members, who all come from ethnic minority backgrounds, found the system for dealing with complaints - roughly 500 a year - was "well established" and "thorough".

But, yesterday, it was described as a "whitewash" by human rights workers. Claude Moraes, director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Officers, said: "The commission gives the impression that there exists a proper immigration complaints service. That is dishonesty on the part of the Home Office. This body has no teeth."

The committee was set up a year ago after concerns were voiced about the work of the Immigration and Nationality Department following the case of Joy Gardner, who died after a struggle with the police sent to deport her, and the detention and deportation of dozens of charter flight passengers from Jamaica.

Immigration workers and politicians called for a statutory complaints body - similar to the Police Complaints Authority, which investigates allegations against policemen and women.

However, Home Office ministers fell short of giving the body powers to investigate individual cases and confined its remit to examining the effectiveness of procedures and management and to report annually to the Home Secretary.