New asylum centres this year to help tackle crisis

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Beverley Hughes, the Immigration minister, said yesterday the Home Office was still recovering from the after-effects of a "catastrophic" crisis in the asylum system.

Beverley Hughes, the Immigration minister, said yesterday the Home Office was still recovering from the after-effects of a "catastrophic" crisis in the asylum system.

Responding to scathing criticism from MPs that spiralling numbers of refugees could overwhelm the country, Ms Hughes insisted the Government was making progress in tackling the problem.

She announced the firstasylum-seeker reception centre outside the European Union could be operating by the end of the year and guaranteed the Government would hit its target in September of halving the number of asylum applications over a year.

Ministers were put on the defensive yesterday by a Home Affairs Select Committee report that said the issue could cause "social unrest" and might already have produced a "political backlash" with voters turning to extremist parties.

Appearing before the committee yesterday, Ms Hughes said the asylum programme had been harmed by the failure of a computer system ordered by the previous Tory government and the departure of 1,200 experienced case workers. In 1999, the outbreak of war in the Kosovo conflict provoked a influx of refugees to Britain.

Ms Hughes agreed with a Labour MP that there was a perception that the Home Office had been in "chaos" at the time. She said: "We still have the legacy of some of that. The way in which the system at that time has been described, is one of catastrophe. It was a total incapacity to respond to the number of cases coming in, to log or even store them properly." She added: "The situation has improved from that very disastrous low point."

Ms Hughes said the plans of David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, to set up processing centres for asylum-seekers outside EU borders could be a "viable possibility" because they had generated "warm interest" from other EU countries. She said: "We think we might be able to have some pilot schemes under way before the end of this year."

Insisting the Government would meet Tony Blair's goal of halving asylum-seeker numbers, Ms Hughes said Iraqi refugees would be returned as soon as possible and that rule changes had also slashed the numbers of applications from "white-list" countries.

Bill Jeffrey, director general of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, said that Britain was aware that asylum- seekers could try to find new routes into Britain "if Calais proves, as it increasingly is, impenetrable".

Earlier, Ms Hughes said the Government had already reacted to warning signals of race problems such as riots in northern England in 2001.

"It's actually precisely because we foresaw some of the problems of community relations in Britain and that we took the decision that we had to act and start to act then ... to separate the asylum system from migration, generally to make sure that we didn't have people using the asylum system to come here and work."

Kate Allen, Amnesty International's UK director, warned that the committee's report could distract attention from the important issues.

"It is up to politicians to help shift the focus away from number-crunching and scaremongering, back on to the fact that human rights violations are at the heart of this matter," she said. "If our MPs fail to make clear that asylum is about fairness, the rule of law and human rights, then they in turn risk stoking up bigotry and even race hatred."

* Olegs Pavlovs, 33, a Latvian, was charged at Uxbridge magistrates' court yesterday with the murder of Olga Blaskevica, 29, at Harmondsworth removal centre for asylum-seekers in west London on Wednesday.