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14 August 2003 Edition

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Report calls for end to asylum seeker detentions

A new report has called on the British government to end its practice of detaining asylum seekers at Maghaberry jail in Co Antrim while their applications are being dealt with. The report by the Law Centre, entitled Sanctuary in a Cell, revealed that since its previous report in November 2000, the number of people detained at Maghaberry has increased by 20%.

The report called the present situation "nothing short of a disgrace" and showed that asylum-seekers from as far away as China have been detained for up to a year while their application is looked at. Report author Emily Threlfall said that of the 33 recommendations previously made, only one regarding the appropriate language to describe an asylum seeker has actually been implemented.

While asylum-seekers flee torture, death or imprisonment in their home country because of political beliefs, Threlfall slammed the practice of detaining them behind bars like criminals. "The welcome mat in Northern Ireland leads to a prison cell," she said.

In 2002, 50 men and 10 women seeking asylum were detained in the prison, and one fifth of those imprisoned were held for over three months. Jamal Iweida, president of the Belfast Islamic Centre, said nobody should ever be incarcerated without a clear offence or crime having been committed. "The majority of these people have gone through terrible circumstances, which few of us, living in fairly comfortable lives in a relatively democratic society, can imagine. We should help them, not punish them," he said.

Threlfall recommended reducing the need for detention by introducing non-custodial accommodation, in which those detained should be placed and facilities should be made available.

Chief Commissioner of the Six Counties Equality Commission, Joan Harbison, said it was important these recommendations were acted upon. "These are people who are often particularly vulnerable and unable to act on their own behalf to improve their conditions and circumstances," she said. "It is important that all who have any responsibility for the treatment of people who find themselves in this position carry out these responsibilities mindful of equality and human rights obligations."

Sinn Féin's Conor Murphy, who attended the launch of the report, said the party was fully behind it. "People, including pregnant women and children, who have committed no offence, are being interned in Maghaberry," he said. "This is a breach of the most basic human rights standards. The British government have even refused to meet with local politicians to discuss this situation, preferring instead to try and minimise publicity and minimise the fact that they are engaging in human rights abuses."

He added: "Irish republicans have an affinity with those people who are victims of oppressive and undemocratic regimes in their own homelands and we have an affinity with those being interned without having committed any offence. We will continue to highlight this issue and campaign for an end to the internment of asylum seekers in Maghaberry."

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