Blunkett's asylum pledge betrayed

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The Government is still jailing asylum-seekers who have committed no crime despite a pledge from the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, three years ago to end the practice.

The Government is still jailing asylum-seekers who have committed no crime despite a pledge from the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, three years ago to end the practice.

Official figures show that 170 asylum-seekers are being held in prisons, the highest level since Mr Blunkett made his pledge. More than 130 of them were previously held in Harmondsworth immigration removals centre but were moved to jails after rioting last month led to the detention centre's closure.

The Independent on Sunday first revealed the scandal of asylum-seekers being locked up in jails in August 2001. More than 1,000 asylum-seekers were being held in prisons because there was not enough space in detention centres. Two months later, the Home Secretary announced an end to the use of prisons for those detained solely under Immigration Act powers, describing the practice as "a scandal that should not have happened".

The Home Office last night said that detainees from Harmondsworth, near Heathrow, had been placed in prisons "as an exceptional measure in the context of responding to an emergency situation". The decision to move people to prisons was not taken because they were viewed as dangerous or at risk of absconding.

However, following the fire at Yarl's Wood detention centre in 2002, Mr Blunkett said that only those asylum-seekers "with a history of violent or criminal behaviour and those considered a danger to safety" were transferred to prisons.

The United Nations yesterday called on the Government to end its policy of locking up asylum-seekers and said alternatives had to be considered.

A spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We do not agree with people who have not been convicted of any crime being detained in prison, especially when these people came to this country to seek asylum, whether they were right in doing that, or whether they were wrong."

The detainees still in prisons include a refugee from the Darfur region of Sudan, as well as at least two asylum-seekers who have documented mental health problems. Others have been split up from family members. One man being held in Cardiff is unable to see his pregnant wife in London.

Neil Gerrard, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on refugees, called on the Government to find more appropriate places to house those asylum-seekers moved from Harmondsworth.

"You are not dealing with people who have committed any criminal offence," he said, "so prison is not an appropriate place for them to be."

Keith Best, of the Immigration Advisory Service, warned the Home Secretary he would have "blood on his hands" if any of the detainees put in jail committed suicide.

"People who are psychologically disturbed are being put in prison quite casually," he said. "At some stage they will do themselves in rather than face being returned to a country where they will be tortured or killed."

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