Blunkett aims to jail asylum-seekers who have no papers

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Asylum-seekers who destroy their travel documents in a ploy to stay in Britain will be jailed for up to two years, David Blunkett announced yesterday.

As part of a final batch of reforms to the asylum system, the Home Secretary also set out new powers that will put out of business legal advisers who encourage unwarranted claims for refugee status.

Refugee groups denounced the move as an attack on the victims of human traffickers rather than the traffickers themselves. There were suggested that the clampdown could be illegal.

Under the proposals, expected to be included in an Asylum Bill in the Queen's Speech next month, asylum-seekers who cannot provide a credible reason for being without documents, or who refuse to co- operate with immigration officers trying to provide them with new documents, could be prosecuted. They would face a maximum jail sentence of two years, followed by deportation. Those lacking the proper paperwork will be told their claims are less likely to succeed.

Mr Blunkett said the rules were not anti-immigration, but designed to stop abuses of the system. He said most asylum-seekers claimed not to have the relevant papers, even though many would have needed them for their journey to Britain. Mr Blunkett said: "The fact is, many destroy them en route because traffickers tell them it's their best chance of staying in the UK - by making fraudulent claims and making it difficult to remove them if their claims fail. Most of the time, people need documents to travel. If they won't tell us how they got here without them, it will be more difficult for their claim to succeed."

Plans are also being drawn up to require travel operators, such as airlines, to give immigration officials copies of passengers' travel documents on routes used by refugees.

Jan Shaw, UK refugee affairs director of Amnesty International, said: "Visa requirements, carriers' sanctions and other obstacles make it almost impossible for asylum-seekers to enter the UK legally. Punishment for this may breach international law, and heap further suffering on already vulnerable people."

Maeve Sherlock, chief executive of the Refugee Council said: "This proposal is penalising the victims rather than targeting the criminal traffickers."

In responses to research that found more than a quarter of London law firms specialising in asylum provided poor advice, the Immigration Services Commissioner will get new powers to raid the offices and homes of advisers who arouse their suspicions. Mr Blunkett said: "We need to call time on dubious legal advisers whose only advice is how to exploit the system at taxpayers' expense."

The decisions follow last week's announcement of an amnesty for up to 50,000 asylum-seekers with long-standing applications. In future, asylum-seekers whose claims are rejected will lose benefits if they refuse to go home.

Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "This has all the feel of the Home Office panicking. They sounded soft on asylum on Friday and needed to sound tough on Monday to balance things out."

The Government is expected to publish figures next month confirming it has hit Tony Blair's target for halving the number of asylum-seekers reaching Britain.