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Riot in U.K. asylum centre

By Hasan Suroor

LONDON, JULY 21. The British Government was today facing calls to abandon its controversial policy of holding failed asylum-seekers in heavily-guarded detention centres after inmates of one such centre in London went on the rampage following the death of a refugee whose body was found hanging in his cell.

The death of the 31-year-old Kosovon refugee, who apparently committed suicide, sparked the riot at Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre, near Heathrow, as inmates seized control of the building and set fire to property to protest against "prison-like'' conditions.

For hours, special anti-riot squads fought a pitched battle with angry asylum-seekers who hurled missiles at the police and firemen even as the blaze spread. The centre was closed down after a night of violence, and hundreds of refugees were moved to other places, including prisons.

This is said to be the second unnatural death at the centre where asylum-seekers from more than 60 countries are being held virtually as `criminals', according to human rights activists who said that the latest tragedy was the `inevitable'' result of widespread frustration and deep depression among the inmates.

"These people feel they have been criminalised when they have not committed any criminal act,'' said an official of the Immigration Advisory Service.

The centre, set up three years ago as part of a scheme to "fast-track'' asylum cases, was being used to accommodate hundreds of refugees despite the fact that it was declared an "unsafe place both for staff and detainees'' by the chief inspectors of prisons, Anne Owers, last year. There have been complaints of manhandling of inmates by the staff leading to arrest of five staff members recently for allegedly beating up a refugee.

The Opposition parties criticised the Government for ignoring the warning that the centre was not safe. "They have learned little from the chaos which brought down Yarl's Wood,'' said the shadow home secretary, David Davis, referring to the violence at another centre some time ago.

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