FAILED asylum seekers in Merseyside will be forced to do unpaid community service in return for accommodation while they wait to be deported, the Daily Post can reveal.
The controversial pilot scheme, set to be launched by the YMCA on behalf of the Government, was last night condemned as tantamount to slavery.
The project, to be launched in Liverpool and Chester, will see failed asylum seekers put to work on community projects in exchange for a roof over their heads in the weeks and months before they are sent home.
Immigration Minister Des Browne says the aim is to give people whose countries are too dangerous for them to return immediately a chance to "put something back into the community".
The YMCA says it is confident that the pilot scheme will provide "a pragmatic, positive and innovative approach to what is a complex and sensitive issue".
But voluntary agencies have heavily criticised the scheme as "monstrous" and several groups have mounted campaigns urging YMCA England to re-consider.
One major concern is that everyone who took part in the scheme would also be required to sign a document relinquishing their claim to asylum in this country and agreeing to be deported at any time.
Liverpool council and union leaders are also opposing the scheme, which a spokesman for the city says puts asylum seekers "in the same category as criminals."
Last night, Alec McFadden, president of the North West TUC, said: "This is tantamount to re-introducing slavery.
"It is especially disconcerting that YMCA England have chosen to pilot this in Liverpool, a city that has worked so hard to rid itself of its links with slavery, and is at the core of a campaign to make August 23 World Anti-Slavery Day.
"The unions cannot support any initiative where people are forced to work without pay. Prisoners are treated better."
The scheme will be piloted under section 10 of the 2004 Asylum and Immigration Act, which national campaign groups including NACDS and No-One Is Illegal say is in breach of the 1930
UN Convention on Forced Labour. The scheme being proposed by YMCA England would only cover accommodation currently provided through the Government's National Asylum Support System, and not beds at YMCA Liverpool on Mount Pleasant.
A statement released by the YMCA described how asylum seekers often suffered from "boredom and inactivity".
It said examples of work could include environmental projects and work for the homeless and elderly and for people from ethnic minorities.
A spokesman said the plan was still in the early stages and could also include opportunities for training.
A Liverpool council spokesman said both officers and elected members had voiced similar concerns to those of local unions and voluntary refugee organisations.
Cllr Flo Clucas, Liverpool's executive member for social care, has now offered to meet campaigners to discuss the matter.
The spokesman said: "Liverpool city council is opposing the scheme. There are a number of different reasons why we are not happy with it.
"It puts failed asylum seekers in the same category as criminals. There is also opposition by the city council about the compulsory nature of the scheme.
"The National Asylum Seekers Support department have said they will report back to the Home Office, and we hope our views will be taken on board."
Ed Murphy, chairman of Merseyside Refugee Support Network(MRSN), described the scheme as the equivalent of indentured labour, which was used to control peasants in Eastern Europe in the 1700s.
He said: "The members of the MRSN have considered this monstrous proposal twice at trust board meetings and so have the general membership of the network.
"We believe no voluntary organisation in Liverpool other than the YMCA will have anything to do with it.
"The Merseyside trade unions, which MRSN works closely with, have also expressed their opposition. This cannot and will not happen in Liverpool."
Mr Murphy added: "This is the equivalent of indentured labour. While slaves are owned by their master, indentured labourers are in theory free to starve unless they obey their master."
MRSN is an umbrella organisation for local refugee and voluntary agencies who attended a consultation meeting with the YMCA and Liverpool council last week.
A spokesman for YMCA England refused to be drawn on the question of whether the plan could be scrapped in the face of opposition. He said: "We have had a very useful meeting with community groups in Liverpool. We are still consulting with them on what a pilot could look like."