Cabinet plans are being prepared for the RAF to airlift hundreds of Afghan asylum seekers from Britain back to Afghanistan in an attempt to answer growing criticism of the failure to halt illegal entrants to Britain.
The Government will face a renewed attack this week over new asylum figures for the first quarter of the year, showing the crisis is getting worse, with a near-record rise in applications to a total of 78,000 a year and a fall in removals to 1,000 a month.
The Cabinet committee handling the asylum issue is planning a tough new approach to repatriate asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Turkey and Sri Lanka, regarded as economic migrants. The aim is to reduce incomers by demonstrating to potential asylum seekers in those countries that they will be sent back if they reach Britain.
Home Office officials are already in Afghanistan preparing the ground for more people to be returned. One highly placed source said they would be sent back after a stable government had been established, following the tribal summit due to take place in about a fortnight.
The only airport operating in Afghanistan is the Bagram military air base, patrolled by British troops. A senior ministerial source said: "We will do more than simply drop people off on the runway."
The Cabinet committee is considering ways of supporting the Afghan asylum seekers when they are returned to their own country, possibly through arranging for Afghans working in Britain to sponsor their rehabilitation at home.
Around 700 Afghans a month are seeking asylum in Britain the highest of any nation even though the war has been over for months. Most are young men, entering illegally through the Channel Tunnel via the controversial Sangatte refugee camp.
Britain and France are negotiating the closure of the Sangatte camp but it will be delayed for EU-wide asylum measures to be adopted at next month's EU summit. It is hoped this will prevent the influx of asylum seekers overflowing onto the streets of Calais and other coastal towns.
The French Ambassador to Britain is to be summoned by the Transport Select Committee, chaired by Gwyneth Dunwoody, as part of its investigation into the failure of the French to tackle the invasion of trains by asylum seekers at Sangatte.
A total of 2,280 applications for asylum in the last quarter of 2001 were made by Afghans, followed by Iraq (1,835) and Sri Lanka (1,425). Afghans who have been settled in Britain for years after fleeing the Taliban regime before it was defeated will not be forced to leave, but many others will have their cases speeded up.
The use of the RAF to fly asylum seekers out of Britain was among the ideas in a joint Number 10-Home Office options paper, which included the deployment of warships to intercept asylum seekers in the Mediterranean.
The Shadow Home Secretary Oliver Letwin said he did not object to immigrants being allowed into Britain for work on short-term permits. Mr Blunkett this week will announce plans to give work permits to 120,000 legitimate immigrants a year.
Tony Blair told the Labour Party National Executive Committee last week that firm action on illegal entry had to be taken to avoid leaving space for the extreme right to grow in Britain, but that justified immigration could benefit Britain.
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