Hundreds of asylum seekers could walk out of the Government's showpiece refugee centre if a court case goes against them today (Friday).
UK refugee centre could be illegal
Labour's policies on asylum seekers would be thrown into confusion if the High Court judge declares the centre illegal. The 4.5 million Oakington reception centre near Cambridge was opened last year to hold asylum seekers and speed up applications.
But four Iraqi Kurds challenged the legality of holding them, claiming it breached their human rights.
Mr Justice Collins is due to make his ruling on the case today but speculation is growing that the Home Office will lose.
Government lawyers are so concerned about the outcome that they have already booked court time next week to appeal against the judgement.
A spokesman for the Home Office said booking the court was merely a contingency measure in case the judgement went against the Government.
But sources say a series of high-level meetings have taken place at Oakington to discuss the implications of the ruling.
Technically, if Mr Justice Collins rules in favour of the Iraqi asylum seekers, they and other refugees could simply walk out of the centre. However immigration officers could still hold the asylum seekers if they had already broken, or were suspected of intending to break immigration laws.
A Home Office spokesman said: 'We are waiting for the court's ruling. Any predictions about the outcome are nothing more than speculation.
'Our view is that the use of Oakington is entirely lawful.
'If there is an adverse decision there will be an immediate appeal.'
The Refugee Legal Centre, which is fighting the case on behalf of the four Iraqis, declined to comment until after the court delivered its judgement.
The Oakington reception centre opened in March 2000 in buildings formerly used as an army barracks. Within a week, six Romanian men were on the run.
An estimated 8,000 people have been processed at the centre since it opened.
Asylum seekers are locked inside a barbed wire enclosure and under guard.
The centre's facilities include dormitory bedrooms, a gym, satellite TV, tennis courts, library, restaurant and sports facilities.
It costs the taxpayer 11 million a year to run, with potentially up to 13,000 would-be refugees a year staying there.
The men, women and children who are sent there are those the authorities believe are likely to be eventually deported.
Detainees are kept behind fences and barbed wire and the premises are patrolled by professional security staff. Inside Oakington, asylum seekers are housed in plain but clean 12-bed dormitories.
Each bed has its own lockable wardrobe as well as sheets and towels. Accommodation for family groups is expected to open in May.
The refugees are given three meals a day with pork strictly off the menu as many of those passing through will be Muslims.
If applicants have their claims rejected they have a choice of returning to their countries or lodging an appeal in which case they are moved to one of three detention centres around the country.
On a visit to Oakington before it opened, Immigration Minister Barbara Roche said the regime would be relaxed but stressed it was a secure site.
by Duncan Milner