Blair wants asylum-seeker camp in Africa

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The Government was accused yesterday of starting "an international trade in displaced people" after Tony Blair confirmed plans to process people seeking asylum in Britain near their country of origin.

Downing Street denied a "cash for people" deal under which asylum-seekers would be dumped on some of the world's poorest countries. But Britain has offered Tanzania an extra £4m in aid if it opens an asylum camp to house people claiming to be Somalian refugees while their applications to live in Britain are assessed. The Government wants to send those who have had asylum claims refused in Britain to the camp.

The Tanzanian deal would be a pilot scheme that could lead to other claims for asylum being handled near the applicants' home country rather than after they arrive in Britain. The Government is in talks with another African nation about a second camp, possibly in West Africa, and has explored a similar arrangement for the Balkans. Somalis fleeing the country's long-running civil war have topped the number of asylum-seekers seeking refuge in Britain for the past three years.

But many applicants claiming to be Somalis, some of whom arrive in Britain without identity documents, are deemed to be from other countries in the region. The claims to be processed in Tanzania are likely to be handled by Tanzanian officials but their British counterparts may offer training and advice.

In the Commons, Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, challenged Mr Blair over the Tanzanian scheme. He said: "This could be the beginning of an international trade in displaced people and that would be a very bad precedent to set."

Later Mr Kennedy said the prospect had disturbing implications. "It is a matter of people who actually come to our country, who seek asylum status, are denied it, and are then being sent potentially to a third country with a cheque attached to take the matter off our hands."

Mr Blair described the proposed scheme as "sensible" and the discussions with Tanzania as "perfectly amicable". Dismissing Mr Kennedy's criticism as "absurd", he did not understand objections to seeing whether it is possible to process claims close to the applicant's country of origin. "I do not think there is any question at all of that ending up in a trade of displaced people,"he said.

The Prime Minister was barracked by Tory MPs, who accused him of adopting the Tory policy of deporting asylum-seekers arriving in Britain to a "far offshore" island to have their claims processed. David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "This smacks of sheer hypocrisy. The Government has continually mocked Conservative plans to deal with asylum-seekers offshore, and now it has decided to adopt them on the quiet."

Oxfam warned that making aid to Tanzania conditional on co-operation with asylum applications would be illegal because it would contravene the International Development Act and the 1951 Refugee Convention. Peter Kallaghe, director of communications for the Tanzanian President, Benjamin Mkapa, could not confirm the amount of aid offered.

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