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Last Updated:  Tuesday, 8 April, 2003, 11:34 GMT 12:34 UK
Asylum centres branded 'unsafe'
Asylum seekers near the Channel Tunnel
Asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable, says the report
Three detention centres for asylum seekers awaiting deportation from the UK have been strongly criticised in a report by prison inspectors.

The centres were examined as part of an inquiry into the treatment of failed asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants.

Haslar in Hampshire, Lindholme in South Yorkshire and Campsfield House in Oxfordshire all came under fire for not making detainees feel safe.

In Haslar and Lindholme only 10% and 15% of residents respectively said they felt safe.

Chief Inspector of Prisons Anne Owers said often detainees did not know what was going to happen to them.

Poor language translation services in one case led to centre officers singing "Happy Birthday" to a "bemused" asylum seeker as they tried to discover his date of birth.

And "unscrupulous" legal advisers were charging large sums of money to help on cases which often went nowhere.

The Home Office says the situation has improved since inspections were carried out early last year, and which also included Oakington in Cambridgeshire and Tinsley House, West Sussex.

Feeling unsafe

However the report said in Haslar and Lindholme - both run by the Prison Service - residents were not shown enough respect and were subjected to "unacceptable and unnecessary" random strip searches after visits from friends and relatives.

They are persuaded to part with large sums of money
Anne Owers

At Haslar, they were held in dormitories without doors and there was nowhere to isolate difficult or disturbed individuals.

The inspectors were most damning about Lindholme, which needed "fundamental and far-reaching changes".

A general complaint was the centres did not give enough support for detainees with mental health problems, especially those who had suffered trauma.

Ms Owers said in all except Oakington, detainees were also not given up-to-date information about their cases.

'Unscrupulous'

It was also extremely difficult for detainees to access competent legal advice, said Ms Owers.

She raised fears detainees in a number of centres were being "targeted by unscrupulous advisers who were able to prey on their vulnerability".

"They are persuaded to part with large sums of money on the promise that someone will be able to sort things out for them," she said.

Anne Owers
Ms Owers: Wants time limits on child detention
"You can be talking about thousands of pounds, certainly hundreds.

"We came across incidents where detainees appeared to have been charged twice and cases which clearly were not progressing properly."

Some detainees were also becoming "lost in the system". In one extreme case a group were put in Winchester Prison en route to another asylum centre.

The group were only supposed to be at the prison for a night or two, but were still there weeks later.

There were other cases where asylum seekers wanted to return to their home countries but the Immigration Service could not help them do so because of caseloads.

'Change under way'

Children are held in two of the centres, Oakington and Tinsley House, which Ms Owers said were unsuitable for stays longer than a few days.

Ms Owers told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the removal centres were not prisons.

"These are not people who have been charged or convicted of any criminal offence. They should be dealt with quite differently."

She said she had been told many of her team's recommendations had been put in place since the inspections early last year.

Home Office Minister Beverley Hughes said a large proportion of the findings reflected only comments of the detainees.

'Different regime'

Ms Hughes went on: "As people are generally unhappy about being detained and removed from the country, it is unsurprising that they express dissatisfaction with their situation."

The minister told Today she did not believe detainees were being treated like prisoners, although she would stop strip searches if there was "no particular reason" for them.

Detention in this country is a cause for shame and deep concern
Bail for Immigration Detainees
In the removal centres she had visited, the atmosphere was "one of acceptance and respect and decency" and was "a very, very different regime from your average prison", she said.

Margaret Lally, from the Refugee Council, said the group had long been worried by differences between immigration centres.

"Detention of people who have committed no crime is an affront to Britain's tradition of safeguarding basic human rights and liberties," said Ms Lally.

The charity Bail for Immigration Detainees, which campaigns for detained asylum seekers, urged the government to act quickly on the inspectors' report.

"The Inspectorate identifies an array of issues which clearly demonstrate that detention in this country is a cause for shame and deep concern," said spokeswoman Sarah Cutler.


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