Crackdown on asylum leaving genuine refugees homeless and destitute, MPs say

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A crackdown on people who fail to claim asylum as soon as they enter Britain may be leaving genuine refugees homeless and destitute and should be reviewed, MPs will declare today.

Withholding benefits and housing from such asylum-seekers has led to reports of "real distress", the Home Affairs Select Committee will say.

Refugee groups and some High Court judges have already criticised the Home Office following cases of people being made homeless, forced to beg for money and in some cases left with serious health problems. In its report, the committee calls for an independent review, pointing out that the policy is "unduly harsh" and could lead to further challenges in the courts.

The MPs also say that the crackdown may be "counter-productive" because it makes it harder to keep track of asylum-seekers and to disperse them around the country.

Section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration, and Asylum Act 2002, which came into force last January, removed the right to state benefits and housing for anyone who did not claim asylum within 24 hours of entering the UK. It does not apply to families with children, but it has had a dramatic impact on the number of single adults refused aid. One judge said in November that the policy had led to "a major flow" into the courts of people who were "without food or shelter and frequently ill".

The committee accepts that there is no doubt that many "in-country" applicants in the past have abused the system, for instance claiming asylum when they have been detected as illegally working. "On the other hand, we are disturbed by the claims by some of our witnesses, and in the press, that asylum-seekers from whom benefit has been withdrawn under Section 55 are suffering real distress," its report states.

"In some cases the powers under the section are being invoked against people whose asylum claim has been made relatively soon after their arrival in the UK."

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, amended the policy before Christmas to give new arrivals 72 hours rather than 24 hours to make an asylum claim.

The committee concludes that the slight shift would help make the policy more humane. But it adds: "None the less, we remain concerned that cases of unduly harsh treatment will continue to occur, and will continue to lead to challenges in the courts. We recommend that the Government should commission an independent review of the working of Section 55, so that any decision on whether to keep or repeal the provision can be based on more than merely anecdotal evidence."

The committee also criticises the Government's "undue delay" in establishing a new border security force, bringing together police, Customs and immigration officers, to tackle illegal immigration.

Committee chairman John Denham, a former Home Office minister, said: "We broadly support the measures the Government has taken but highlight the fact that some asylum seekers are suffering real hardship which must be addressed."

Beverley Hughes, a Home Office minister said: "I am the first to recognise that we must continue to work to ensure we have a robust system that is resistant to abuse, while providing protection for genuine refugees."