Secret quotas target children for deportation

Home Office accused over 'soft option' of expelling families as MPs call for detention to be used only as a last resort
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The Independent Online

Immigration officials have secretly drawn up quotas to deport 160 asylum-seeking families from Britain every month.

Asylum groups say the new targets will lead to a huge increase in the number of children picked up by immigration officers and sent to detention centres.

An immigration service document reveals that more than 2,400 children and their parents were deported between April 2002 and March 2003 - 702 from London and 1,763 from elsewhere.

The performance review paper circulated to staff - and "intended for internal use only" - shows a steady rise in the number of families deported from the UK. Families are seen as a soft target for immigration authorities because they are more easily tracked down than single men, who make up the bulk of asylum-seekers in this country. The UK deports about 16,000 asylum-seekers each year.

The document shows that by March this year officers exceeded their deportation quota, sending home a total of 171 families. The quota system has been condemned by human rights groups, which accuse the Government of focusing on "soft targets".

This comes as David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, faces increasing criticism from politicians, church leaders and human rights campaigners over his policy of holding asylum children in detention centres.

The Independent on Sunday has highlighted the plight of children including Beriwan Ay, her two sisters, brother and mother, who were held for more than a year in Dungavel detention centre in Lanarkshire, Scotland.

This week in a special debate, Scottish MPs called on the Home Office to allow children to be educated in the community and for them to have access to other services outside Dungavel. MPs have also signed a parliamentary motion calling for asylum-seeking families with children only to be detained as a last resort and for as short a time as possible.

There are currently around 20 children still held in the former prison. Lawyers have recently been successful in winning the release of two families on human rights grounds. Last week, Mercy Ikolo, 32, and her 13-month-old daughter Percile-Liz, were released on bail after three weeks at Dungavel. On Thursday, Bushra Sharif and her three sons, aged seven, six and 13 months, also walked free following a three-week stay.

Home Office officials and representatives of the Scottish Executive will hold talks in the next few days to discuss ways of improving the welfare of children held at Dungavel.

A Home Office source said that Mr Blunkett was "unpersuaded" of allowing detained asylum children to be educated in local schools but was willing to listen to ideas.

"Our main argument is that we don't believe it's in the interests of the child," said the source. "These are children who are about to be deported from this country. For them to be placed in mainstream schools then suddenly taken out and put on a plane, that's not on."

However, Michael Connarty, Labour MP for Falkirk East, said improving education provision was not enough and instead called on the Government to end its policy of detention. "Children should not be denied mainstream education but we don't think that letting them out for education is enough," he said. "Children should not be locked up in detention, full stop." Mr Connarty has written to Mr Blunkett asking him to set up "safe refuges" run by Scottish churches and charities that would house asylum-seekers while their claims are being processed.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has also called on the Government to find alternatives to detention.