Tilbury staff 'flouted law' on stowaways

BRITISH immigration officers will be accused in the High Court this week of illegally attempting to turn back stowaway refugees who arrived on a German ship.

Lawyers will tell the hearing on Tuesday that immigration staff at Tilbury attempted the 'unlawful' removal of six Zaireans without giving them a chance to claim asylum. The hearing raises fears that the practice of expelling refugees before their cases are heard - shown in the courts to have been widespread in 1989 - is continuing.

It comes amid increasing concern about the treatment of an estimated 6,000 stowaways each year. A Nautical Institute report, to be published next month, will call on the Government to initiate fresh international talks to tackle the pounds 2.5m cost to the shipping industry of dealing with them.

British immigration rules state that anyone arriving in Britain who either claims asylum or indicates that he is fleeing persecution has a right to have his application heard and cannot be summarily deported. The Home Office says that these rules were followed when the German-registered MV Tagama arrived at Tilbury, Essex, in March last year.

On the ship were six stowaways who had hidden for most of the 17-day voyage. The court will hear an affidavit from one of them, a 29-year-old teacher, accused by the Zairean military of being a strike organiser, whose friends smuggled him on board to escape the threat of torture.

At Tilbury, immigration officers came on board. The Home Office says the stowaways were interviewed in French, a language the teacher understands; he did not say he wanted to claim asylum and was, therefore, told he had no right to enter Britain.

But an affidavit from David Burgess, a solicitor with the firm of Winstanley Burgess, says that the Home Office account is 'not credible'. The Zaireans behaved precisely as frantic refugees would: they jumped from the ship. One broke his leg as he landed. Four were caught and deported. The teacher escaped and shortly afterwards sought asylum at the Home Ofice immigration headquarters in Croydon.

He went to live, with Home Office knowledge, in a London hotel. This March, he was picked up in a police search of the hotel and put in prison while his asylum claim was considered.

The Immigration Service has told Mr Burgess that the notes of the interviews between the stowaways and officers have gone missing. The one piece of evidence remaining - an Immigration Service letter of March 1991 - says that the Zaireans had their notice to leave Britain explained in English - a language they did not understand.

The suspicion that asylum-seekers may be denied their rights at British and other European ports is lent weight by shipping agents. 'About 50 per cent of stowaways claim to be refugees,' said David Cox of Duforest International, 'but immigration officials tell us they are economic migrants looking for work. Very few are allowed to land.'