Secret plan to screen refugees for diseases

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Indy Politics

The Government is being accused of secretly planning to screen all immigrants for infectious diseases.

The Cabinet Office is currently carrying out an inquiry into the impact of immigration on Britain's public health. The inquiry has come in for fierce criticism from MPs and human rights groups.

The probe has been commissioned by the Home Office and the Department of Health in response to concerns over rising rates of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, hepatitis and Aids, and fears that they are being brought to this country by immigrants.

The results of the inquiry are expected this summer, but the Government has refused to consult any outside experts, including refugee groups or health experts.

So incensed are MPs about the lack of consultation that they are now carrying out their own inquiry into the impact of immigration on the NHS and on public health.

This is being conducted by the all-party group on Aids with the collaboration of the members of the all-party group on refugees. They will take evidence from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as from medical experts and refugee charities.

Neil Gerrard, who chairs both groups, said the concern was that the Government would draw up policies based on "prejudice" rather than hard fact. "This is a really sensitive issue and we really need to get to grips with it," said Mr Gerrard, Labour MP for Walthamstow. "We don't want people to suggest policies based on anecdotal evidence or sheer prejudice. What we really don't know is what the driving force is behind this - whether this is about money and the cost to the NHS."

Asylum-seekers are already given a general health screening by doctors at induction centres when they come to this country, but this does not include tests for specific infectious diseases.

In June last year, a pilot scheme was set up in Ashford, Kent, to test asylum-seekers for TB, but so far not one positive result has been found.

Some medical experts believe that refugees are healthier and richer than the people in the countries they leave behind and instead that they develop infectious diseases in this country, where they tend to encounter overcrowded conditions.

A senior Home Office source confirmed that new screening policies may emerge once the results of the Cabinet Office report have been evaluated.

"There is a public health issue here," said the source. "Policies may emerge from the inquiry. There is nothing that we have ruled out."

The Government last week published its latest asylum figures, which showed a drop in the numbers of people applying for asylum in Britain.

Despite the Home Office's tough stance on asylum, Lord Falconer, a senior Home Office minister, played down any suggestions that asylum-seekers were associated with crime. This follows comments made recently by Chris Fox, the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, that the influx of asylum-seekers into Britain was linked to a wave of serious crime.

In an interview with The Independent on Sunday, Lord Falconer said: "We are not saying asylum-seekers equal a particular sort of criminal."

But he continued: "Any sort of crime we see we should address, and that includes human trafficking.

"I think we have to be extraordinarily careful not to suggest that asylum-seekers are more likely to be criminals than anyone else.

"You have got to fight crimes as you see. I don't think it is helping at all to characterise a group as more likely to be criminal than another."