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Thursday, September 10, 1998 Published at 02:01 GMT 03:01 UK

World: Americas

US accused over immigrants

Ellis Island: Once the first staging post for millions of immigrants to the US

The United States-based group, Human Rights Watch, has accused the US authorities of housing thousands of immigrants in local jails, with the general criminal population.

Human Rights Watch said the immigration service, the INS, had placed about 9,000 people in prison because its own detention facilities were full, but had failed to guarantee humane treatment for them.

The immigrants from countries such as Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq and Iran are said to be subjected to abuses and have reported problems ranging from lack of food and adequate medical care to frequent unexplained transfers to other prisons.

'It must stop'

"The INS is shipping immigrants off to local jails where they don't belong," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

"This practice violates international standards, and it must stop."

Human Rights Watch said some of the detainees were in effect serving an open-ended criminal sentence because no country would accept them.

In response to the findings, INS Commissioner Doris Meissner said her agency was "not shirking" its responsibility to ensure proper treatment of illegal immigrants, asylum seekers and others placed in detention.

"Ideally, we would like to house all detainees in INS-run facilities because they are the ones over which we have the greatest control of conditions," she said.

"This is not a viable option, however, given the growth in demand for bed space and budgetary constraints we face."

In one instance this summer, INS detainees in a Florida jail alleged they were jolted with electric shocks while shackled.

A BBC correspondent in the United States says that in recent months, the authorities have enforced immigration laws more strictly, and so greater numbers of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers are being held for investigation.

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