A scandal repeated

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In 2001, to the warm applause of the Labour Party conference, David Blunkett announced that the Government would end the appalling practice of detaining asylum-seekers in prison. It was, he conceded, a "scandal that should never have happened". Three years later, the scandal has returned.

In 2001, to the warm applause of the Labour Party conference, David Blunkett announced that the Government would end the appalling practice of detaining asylum-seekers in prison. It was, he conceded, a "scandal that should never have happened". Three years later, the scandal has returned.

Following the razing of the Harmondsworth detention centre near Heathrow, 131 asylum-seekers have been put in prison without charge. All of the men will be separated from their families; many of those incarcerated, including a man who fled the violence in Darfur, speak no English and will have had hellish experiences in prison before.

The last time a detention centre was torched - Yarl's Wood, in 2002 - only those asylum-seekers with a history of violence and crime were transferred to prisons. The Home Office is making no such distinctions this time. Bafflingly, it admits that those in jail are not criminals or even viewed as at risk of absconding. There is no logical reason why they can't be treated like other asylum-seekers, who are allowed to live freely until their application for refugee status is reviewed.

The imprisonment of asylum-seekers should be ended immediately, but the whole system of detention is in urgent need of review. Last month, two asylum-seekers in detention committed suicide within a week of one another. Alternatives to imprisonment, such as bail bonds, should be used wherever possible. Yet the suspicion remains that the Home Office is in no hurry to make life easier for asylum-seekers. Unless the situation is rectified, it will be hard to avoid the conclusion that their miserable incarceration is part of a deliberate, unacknowledged policy of deterring claims.

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