Thousands of Afghan asylum-seekers in Britain may be ordered to return home, the Government has indicated.
Lord Rooker, the Immigration minister, told The Independent that Afghanistan was becoming a safe country that could take back people who had previously been seeking refuge in the UK.
Thousands of Afghans have arrived in Britain in recent years, fleeing years of civil war and the strict Islamic rule of the Taliban. No one has been sent back to Afghanistan since 1978 because the country has been considered such a dangerous and hostile place to live.
Last night refugee groups warned that lives could be put at risk and the minister's comments showed Britain was more concerned with removing asylum-seekers than with being a safe haven.
The Home Office is now poised to return asylum- seekers to Afghanistan and to another country ravaged by war, Somalia. The two countries account for a high proportion of the asylum-seekers who arrived in Britain last year.
From July to September, 2,505 Afghans sought asylum in Britain, with nearly all being granted refugee status or leave to remain in the country. Somalis were the second-largest source country with 2,265 applicants arriving – and most were allowed to remain.
More Afghans are thought to be heading for Britain to claim asylum because of the US-led military strikes on the Taliban.
Lord Rooker believes conditions are improving so rapidly in Afghanistan and Somalia that the Home Office will be able to organise flights for the safe removal of failed asylum applicants. He said: "Afghans, month in, month out, are in the top three of people coming here to claim asylum. Nine times out of 10, they are young single men and they have been fleeing the Taliban.
"Well, the Taliban's not there anymore now, are they?" He said cases would continue to be dealt with on their merits but compared the Afghan situation with Kosovo. "Most of them [Kosovars] have gone back, they have been returned because of stability and nation building. Afghanistan will be in that position."
The minister's comments were made amid signs of a drop in asylum applications to Britain, with the number of claimants falling to about 70,000 in 2001, a reduction of more than 10 per cent from the record level of the previous year.
Lord Rooker said applications were now at a "remarkably constant" 1,200 a week and that only "a trickle" of asylum applicants was arriving on Eurostar trains.
He added Britain was "on the verge of being able to return people to certain parts of Somalia" because large areas of the country were now being run by "good local government".
The move is unlikely to affect those asylum-seekers who have already been granted exceptional leave to stay in Britain, although if anyone was found to be in breach of their immigration conditions they could be sent back to Afghanistan.
But Habib Rahman, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said: "Afghanistan and Somalia are countries that are universally accepted as not being safe. This shows the Government is paying lip service to its international obligations. They are hell-bent on sending people back."
Figures to be released by the Home Office next month will show that Afghanistan was the source country that provided the most asylum-seekers coming to Britain last year.
For many years, the Immigration Service has decided not to return failed asylum- seekers to either Afghanistan or Somalia because of war, political conditions or the lack of direct flights from Britain.
The Refugee Council said no one had been sent back to Afghanistan since 1978, with the exception of the voluntary return of a group who arrived on a hijacked flight at Stansted airport in Essex in February 2000.
Last September, the Home Office said people from the Puntland and Somaliland areas of northern Somalia would no longer be "routinely granted" leave to remain because of their "relative peace and stability". By November fighting had broken out in Puntland.
Jessica Yudilevich, head of advocacy at the Refugee Council, called for Britain to follow Canada's example and appoint an independent body to assess the safety of countries for asylum cases. "Our view is these countries are far too unstable to be making any radical changes to our policy."
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