Blunkett goes back to jailing asylum-seekers

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Indy Politics

Forty-six asylum-seekers are being held in prisons without charge after the fire at Yarl's Wood detention centre, the Home Office has admitted.

Campaigners said the detentions flew in the face of Home Secretary David Blunkett's promise not to jail asylum-seekers. That followed last year's campaign by The Independent on Sunday, which highlighted the scandal.

A Home Office spokeswoman said last night that although no arrests had been made, the asylum-seekers had been put in jail because "they are people who have a history of violent or criminal behaviour, or are considered to be a danger to safety. That is why they have been moved".

Emma Ginn, of the Campaign to Stop Arbitrary Detention at Yarl's Wood, said: "This is a complete suspension of their human rights. They have not been charged with anything and yet they are being kept in prison. They have not been questioned by police. I am worried about them. They could be deported at any moment and neither I nor their solicitor would know about it.

"Blunkett said it was scandalous that asylum-seekers should be put in prison. Now he is putting people there who have never been accused of a crime."

Ms Ginn has been compiling her own evidence of what happened on 14 February at the detention centre in Bedfordshire. The fire that broke out at the immigration removal centre caused damage estimated at £38m.

One eyewitness, a refugee from Sierra Leone, claimed fighting broke out because security guards from Group 4 were manhandling a woman inmate in her fifties. In an email sent to this paper, the detainee says: "People just started smashing things. People were so angry. They were breaking the cameras, the windows and the furniture. The fire could have been put out. We shouted to the firemen to come in but the police wouldn't let them. The smoke was starting to get bad but it was mainly in the reception area. We told the women and children to get out."

Campaigners are now calling for a public inquiry into the events of 14 February. But there may be further fall-out from the Yarl's Wood fire over the Government's plans to build four accommodation centres to house 3,000 asylum-seekers.

Keith Best, chief executive of the Immigration Advisory Service, said Home Office officials had indicated a rethink on the plan because of risks of violence in the future.

The accommodation centres, to be built in former RAF bases and at other unused, government-owned locations – mainly in rural areas – are due to open in 2003. Eight sites are under consideration for four asylum villages.

But Mr Best said talks with the Home Office revealed the scheme was now under review in the light of the riot at Yarl's Wood. "I think you will find there is a serious rethink about these accommodation centres," said Mr Best. "What we need are smaller centres, housing a maximum 200 people, in urban areas where asylum-seekers have something to do during the day."

The Home Office spokes- woman said: "Everything is still under review because these are only potential sites. It is still at the consultation stage."