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Thursday, 23 August, 2001, 21:36 GMT 22:36 UK
Britain's jailed asylum seekers
The UK has been condemned by the United Nations for being the only country in Europe to detain asylum seekers in prison.

Britain is holding 1,800 detainees under the UK Immigration Act, more than 1,000 of them in regular prisons.

BBC Newsnight's Sue Lloyd-Roberts reports on the situation in Liverpool prison.

"I need to get out of here, otherwise I am going to die".

John then told me that his phone card was running out and he had to go.

He was using his once-weekly phone call privilege from Liverpool Prison to explain how he was a member of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in Zimbabwe, who had been beaten and tortured by supporters of President Mugabe's Zanu-PF party.

He had fled to Britain to ask for political asylum "because of our colonial links, because I'd heard that whites were going to Britain and because I'd heard that it was a country that believed in human rights."

After his request for asylum was refused, he found himself locked up for 23 hours a day with drug dealers and murderers while waiting for his appeal.

"What have I done wrong?" he asks.

Last week, two guys tried to commit suicide. People lose hope

David, imprisoned asylum seeker

John has been in Liverpool for only a week. David, who has been in Liverpool for two months, is even more anxious.

Some of the asylum seekers, he says, "are getting desperate. Last week, two guys tried to commit suicide. People lose hope.

"Imagine, you've been locked up and then the Home Office say they'll chuck you back to your country where the situation is even more terrible than it is here and you think you might as well die. If I go back, my life will be in danger. It's hopeless."

Suicide attempts

The Home Office confirmed that there have been suicide attempts in Liverpool. and that a man was rushed to hospital a few weeks ago where medics managed to safe his life. He was hospitalised for 10 days.

Puck de Raadt, who runs Bail for Immigration Detainees (Bid), understands the terror currently gripping Zimbabweans who are awaiting, without much hope, their last appeal hearing to stay in Britain.

She has just heard of one returnee, sent back to Harare by the UK Immigration Service, who was beaten by President Mugabe's security forces at the airport when he arrived and is now back in prison, this time in Zimbabwe.

What we are dealing with in Britain is institutionalised xenophobia

Puck de Raadt, Bail for Immigration Detainees

"What we are dealing with in Britain is institutionalised xenophobia", she says.

"The bureaucracy of the immigration system is trivialising genuine human suffering".

The Home Office will not say how many of the 1,000 or so detainees held in prison are political asylum seekers and how many are "over-stayers".

High-risk category

A spokesman said: "It is regrettable but necessary to detain those with a high level risk of absconding before they can be removed from the country".

Many Zimbabweans unwittingly put themselves into the category of "high risk" and therefore ruin their chances of asylum at the outset, by going to stay with family members already in the UK.

John told me that he applied for a visitor's visa to stay with his sister who works for the NHS in order to find a good lawyer and apply for political asylum.

As soon as he applied, he was detained on the grounds that he obtained entry through deception and is now a "high risk absconder".

"I was beaten on the head by the Zanu-PF people", he says. "I have headaches and nightmares but the doctor says I can't have anything because I am in prison.

"When it gets really bad, there's a button in the cell which you're meant to press. But you keep on pressing it and no one comes.

"You could die in the cell. Anything could happen to you."

I tell him that I am thinking of him and that I will try to get a message to his lawyer to help. What else can one say?

Sue Lloyd-Roberts' report on imprisoned asylum seekers is being broadcast on Newsnight on BBC2 at 2230BST on Thursday.

See also:

11 Aug 01 | UK
Liverpool's bleak sanctuary
10 Aug 01 | Scotland
UN condemns asylum seeker attacks
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