Blair takes charge in asylum action

Plans to use Royal Navy warships to intercept people traffickers and carry out bulk deportations of failed asylum seekers in RAF transport planes are being considered by the Government, it was reported today.

According to The Guardian, a confidential "action plan" to "deliver a radical reduction in the number of unfounded asylum applications" was drawn up by the Home Office for the Prime Minister and circulated to senior ministers in advance of a meeting chaired by Mr Blair last Wednesday.

A memo - written by Downing Street policy adviser Olivia McLeod - which accompanied the plans said: "It has become clear from the Prime Minister's discussions on this issue that concerted action is needed across government if we are to deliver a radical reduction in the numbers."

The Home Office-drafted plan identified areas for action across Whitehall "at each of the stages of an unfounded claim, from tackling the problem at source to securing swift removal of failed applicants".

The Guardian suggested that the Ministry of Defence had been asked if it was possible for naval ships in the eastern Mediterranean to intercept people traffickers operating in the area.

The MoD had also been asked for help in providing "secure bulk removals" - presumably by air - and to open up deportation routes to "difficult-to-return" countries such as Sri Lanka and Somalia.

The concerted action envisaged could include tying development aid to countries such as Somalia, Sri Lanka, Turkey and other leading countries of asylum origin to commitments to take back rejected asylum seekers.

Such a measure is likely to be hugely controversial with developing world campaigners, and possibly with International Development Secretary Clare Short.

In an effort to address the problem of asylum seekers coming to Britain via France, the newspaper suggested that a negotiating strategy was being drawn up which includes the "unilateral threat" option of returning applicants from France if no joint arrangement can be agreed.

Downing Street said it did not comment on leaked documents.

A Ministry of Defence spokeswoman said: "The Director of Naval Operations has seen no such document, and is not aware of any ongoing policy work in this area."

The spokeswoman added that the RAF was also unaware of any plans.

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