First non-EU asylum centre planned

The first out-of-EU asylum seeker processing centre could be operating by the end of the year, immigration minister Beverley Hughes indicated today.

Home Secretary David Blunkett's plans would involve establishing centres, possibly in Africa, where asylum seekers wanting to settle in EU countries would stay while their applications were determined.

Ms Hughes told the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee that Mr Blunkett's proposals for easing the pressure of asylum applications had generated "warm interest" around the European Union.

The minister, who acknowledged that the Home Office was still dealing with the legacy of a "disastrous" backlog of asylum applications which developed in the early years of the Labour administration, told MPs that Mr Blunkett's ideas would probably be discussed by EU interior ministers at their next meeting at the beginning of June.

If all went well, Ms Hughes told MPs, then a pilot scheme could be "under way before the end of the year".

Ms Hughes told the committee's inquiry into the asylum applications process that there had been dialogue on the proposals with countries interested in taking advantage of such a scheme, and countries interested in hosting such centres.

She said: "There is every indication that there is sufficient interest from countries for this to be a viable possibility."

There was, she argued, a "general consensus" that the asylum systems of the European countries were not together working efficiently, nor providing sufficient protection for those genuinely fleeing persecution.

"There has to be a better way," she suggested.

Ms Hughes told the committee that the asylum application handling process had been badly affected by the failure to launch successfully a computer system ordered by the previous Tory government in 1996, which should have been operational by 1998.

In anticipation of a successful deployment of that system, the posts of around 1,200 experienced case workers were removed from the system.

The following year saw the eruption of the Kosovo conflict and a substantial new flow of asylum seekers into the UK.

Challenged by committee member David Winnick, the Labour MP for Walsall North, on whether there was a perception that there had been "chaos" at the Home Office, Ms Hughes said: "I do accept that that was the situation. We haven't yet finally cleared that all out ... We still have the legacy of some of that.

"The way in which the system at that time has been described, is one of catastrophe. It was a total incapacity to respond to the number of cases coming in, to log or even store them properly."

But she stressed: "The situation has improved out of all recognition from that very disastrous low point."

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