A huge fire has engulfed Britain's new, high-tech immigration center where would-be asylum seekers are processed. It is the largest complex of its kind in Europe and it is seen by the British government as part of the solution to the vexing asylum problem facing the country.
Just a few months after opening its doors, half of the Yarl's Wood asylum seeker detention complex has now collapsed.
Although no one is believed to have died and a handful of minor injuries were reported, most of the 400 detainees held there had to spend the night outside.
Twelve hours after the outbreak of the fire, huge grey billows of smoke still hung over the Bedfordshire area, about 65 kilometers north of London. Jo Hobbs, a spokeswoman for the local police department, said, "Clearly this is a major incident. We are calling for mutual aid from surrounding forces to support us and the fire service."
Early estimates place the damage at some $50 million.
The exact cause of the fire has not yet been determined.
Immigration has been a controversial issue in Britain since it emerged last year that asylum seekers staying in France routinely try to stow away on trains going through the Channel Tunnel for Britain. News reports say more than 80,000 people applied for asylum in Britain in 2000, a rise of 13 percent from 1999. Many face long periods in detention centers waiting for their applications to be processed.