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Friday, 7 September, 2001, 14:51 GMT 15:51 UK
Government's asylum defeat headache
By the BBC's Jon Silverman

Friday's High Court ruling was expected by the Home Office but nevertheless, it leaves ministers with a headache and potentially, a sizeable bill for compensation.

At the heart of the case is the Home Office description of Oakington - a former RAF barracks in Cambridgeshire - as a "reception centre" rather than a "detention centre".

What may seem like a question of semantics is actually a crucial legal distinction.

Oakington opened just 18 months ago

Article 5 of the European Convention of Human Rights - now incorporated into UK law - is a safeguard against too wide a use of detention for administrative convenience.

And that is how the government has used Oakington.

It houses asylum applicants from certain countries, whose claims are regarded as unfounded.

Fast-track centre

The aim is to make it easier to implement a fast-track decisions policy.

These people are not felt to represent an escape risk because, in the main, they are awaiting a decision and have every reason to abide by the rules.

Another factor is the centre's almost unrivalled facilities which make it a tolerable place to stay for the 7-10 days it takes to deal with the initial stage of the application.

So, why keep them under lock and key?

One answer, given in court by counsel for the four Iraqi Kurds, is that nearby residents objected to the idea of asylum-seekers wandering around the neighbourhood unchecked.

To assuage their fears, Oakington was effectively turned into a detention centre.

'Misleading' description

But in Mr Justice Collin's words, the government's description of Oakington as a "reception " centre - which implies freedom of access - was "euphemistic and somewhat misleading".

There will be no changes until an appeal is heard

Jon Silverman
The issue now is what flows from this ruling. Mindful of the prospect of Oakington's doors being flung open immediately, Mr Justice Collins put a stay on the effect of his judgment.

This means that there will be no changes until an appeal is heard - probably in the first week of October. The judge also limited the impact of the ruling to the four applicants.

So, if other asylum seekers who have passed through Oakington wish to take advantage of it, they will have to bring their own case.

The government could turn Oakington into a fully-fledged detention centre or, as refugee agencies would like, a genuine reception centre, with residents free to come and go as they wish.

The Netherlands and Finland provide a model for this.

But in the current fevered climate, it seems most unlikely that ministers will opt for a more relaxed policy towards asylum seekers.

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