Minister meets front line refugee workers - exclusive

 In the wake of the news that there are to be 2,000 more detention places for asylum seekers, a dialogue took place yesterday between Immigration Minister Barbara Roche and church groups working with refugees. Organised by the Catholic Refugee Forum, at St Vincent's centre in Carlyle Square, the event was chaired by Bishop Patrick O'Donoghue. In her opening remarks, Ms Roche said Britain had a legal and moral duty to give sanctuary to refugees since the 1951 international convention. "But the world has changed since then, she said. "They didn't have mass travel, or the smuggling and trafficking of people we see now." Acknowledging the need to speed up the system, she said "hundreds" of case workers had been recruited for processing applications. She said tougher penalties were being enforced on hauliers bringing refugees to Britain. Admitting there was a "difference of opinion" between the government and those at the meeting on how asylum seekers were supported, she said that leaving boroughs with the job of supporting 80 per cent of asylum seekers was "a big problem". She explained that giving refugees vouchers instead of cash protected genuine asylum seekers and deterred those coming here just for profit. Bernard Elliot from the Jesuit Refugee Service asked why asylum seekers granted permission to stay had to wait so long to receive the letter telling them this. He said: "They can't receive benefits. They can't work. Who can we write to? It causes great anxiety." Ms Roche said she had inherited this problem from the previous government, but figures of people being processed had increased from 2,000 to 10,000 per month. Mildred Neville, a visitor to Harmsworth detention centre, said great distress was caused to refugees who weren't told why they were being detained. She also complained of lack of medical care and poor communications. "Detention is another form of torture. It's inhumane," she said. "There has been one suicide, two attempted suicides and two hunger strikes." Alison Harvey from the Medical Centre For Victims of Torture was very concerned about people tortured in their home country who are detained on arrival here. "The form people are given has no space on it to give reasons why a person should not be detained," she said. Ray Collier, a Columban working in East London, branded the voucher system as "shambolic and half-baked" - stigmatising people and making a profit for supermarkets who are not allowed to give change for them. Imrat Singh from the Refugee Council said that if the government planned to disperse refugees around the country, they needed to explain to host communities who these people are and why they have come. Susan Long from the UN Association pointed out that all over Europe there was a shortage of young workers and called for a "migration policy" instead of the negative policy in force at present. Ms Roche replied that this was a separate issue not within the remit of her department. Echoing last week's Bishop's conference statement on asylum seekers, Bishop O'Donoghue said the meeting reflected the "depth of feeling throughout the country over the delays, detentions, dispersals and nature and tone of the debate. There is great concern of racism, xenophobia, the whole question of leadership. There is enormous depth of feeling... It is frequently felt that government doesn't understand or get these feelings."

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