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Monday, 9 December, 2002, 06:02 GMT
Asylum rough sleeping crisis fear
A coach of asylum seekers from Sangatte heading into London
On the road: Most asylum seekers apply inside the UK

Hundreds of asylum seekers could be sleeping rough on Britain's streets in the New Year because of a little noticed clause in recent legislation, warn charities.

Refugee and housing charities say new regulations will create chaos in major cities because asylum seekers will not be allowed emergency bed and breakfast accommodation unless they declare themselves on arrival at ports.

The majority of asylum seekers, some 5,000 people in September alone, declare themselves once they are inside the UK, such as after getting out of a lorry on a motorway.

A similar policy change introduced by the Conservatives and opposed by Labour in 1996 was overturned by the courts after charities ran soup kitchens and night shelters to deal with the numbers sleeping rough.

New regulations

Asylum seekers get emergency accommodation from the National Asylum Support Service (Nass) when they declare themselves to authorities.

This undermines the government's efforts to tackle rough sleeping... it is completely at odds with their commitment not to leave asylum seekers destitute

Ben Jackson, Shelter
But from 8 January 2003, those who fail to declare themselves at ports will not be given a bed until Nass has screened and approved their cases, a procedure which could take days.

The Refugee Council says the practical impact of the change is that they and other agencies will be forced to turn away hundreds of destitute asylum seekers arriving on their doorstep every week.

"We are appalled by these new measures which will throw thousands of asylum seekers into destitution and add to the chaos in the asylum system," said Fazil Kawani of the Refugee Council.

"The reality is that in the harshest winter month, they will be out on the streets while they wait to get documents from the Home Office which will entitle them to accommodation.

"It is a completely unacceptable way to treat refugees who may be fleeing for their lives or from traumatic persecution."

Fears over pregnant women

Agencies say Home Office officials have yet to clarify whether they will be allowed to house young people who can't prove they are under 18 or pregnant women.

Asylum seekers looking for accommodation
Sleeping rough: Charities warn of chaos
The previous Conservative Government introduced a similar rule in February 1996.

In the weeks that followed, charities, churches and mosques opened emergency shelters to support a growing number of rough sleepers.

Charities argued the restriction broke international treaty obligations and the High Court eventually ordered local councils to provide support.

"Local authorities no longer have any legal responsibility to house asylum seekers and Nass support is being withdrawn," said Amy Bick of Refugee Action.

"We are expecting a large number of destitute people will need help. We estimate 700 people a week. This is very worrying."

Ben Jackson of housing charity Shelter said: "This measure undermines the government's efforts to tackle rough sleeping. It is completely at odds with their commitment not to leave asylum seekers destitute.

"Many people seeking asylum will be worse off than they were under 1996 Conservative legislation which the Labour Party opposed at the time."

'End-to-end system'

A spokesman for the Home Office said the measures were part of a "comprehensive end-to-end" asylum system designed to separate false applications by those illegally living in the UK from those in genuine need.

"These measures will end the presumption of support for those who apply for asylum in country unless they can give a truthful and credible account of their circumstances and demonstrate that they claimed asylum at the earliest opportunity," said the spokesman.

"If you are fleeing from genuine persecution, you will apply for asylum at the first opportunity you get."

Families, those with special needs or individuals whose circumstances suddenly change, such as a coup back home, would not be affected, said the spokesman.

Unaccompanied children arriving in the UK already receive support under different legislation.

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