A LORRY-LOAD of illegal immigrants arrested by police in Basingstoke were set free and told to follow a map to the nearest asylum centre - on the orders of the immigration authorities.

The illegal immigrants - 16 men and women thought to be from the Indian sub-continent - climbed out of a lorry which was parked inside the grounds of Lansing Linde, in Pelton Road, Basingstoke, at noon on Tuesday.

Seven of the group escaped over the fence and ran off down the road, much to the horror of the lorry driver, who shouted after them: "How many of you are in there?"

Staff at the forklift manufacturers penned the remainder into a makeshift prison of forklift trucks, where they stayed, without struggling, until the police arrived at 1.30pm.

The agitated lorry driver told The Gazette: "I'm going to end up in prison like they are.

"They've cost me £2,000 apiece."

Police officers searched the illegal immigrants and took them to Basingstoke police station, where they called immigration officials to ask them what to do next.

But they were told that immigration did not have any available staff to collect the group. The police were then told to release the illegal immigrants with a map and instructions to go to the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, which was 40 miles away in Croydon.

Basingstoke police media services officer Liz Walsh said: "We act on behalf of the immigration service and they make a direction as to what happens.

In this case, they decided to tell us to let them go free."

She added that the lorry driver was not arrested. However, under the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, firms found to be unknowingly transporting illegal immigrants into the UK can still be fined up to £2,000 per immigrant.

Basingstoke MP Andrew Hunter said he was "flabbergasted" to hear what had happened, and sent an urgent fax to the Home Office condemning the move.

His fax, addressed to Beverley Hughes MP, the Minister of State (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism), said: "This is mind-boggling! Should one laugh or cry?

"It is surely totally unacceptable that this situation should have arisen. It makes a mockery of immigration control and the Government's response to a worsening crisis.

"Please can this situation receive your urgent attention. Surely it should not have happened, and measures should be taken instantly to prevent any repetition."

A Home Office spokesman, who would not give his name, said: "The immigration service is routinely contacted by the police in relation to the discovery of clandestine entrants, as occurred in this instance.

"In line with the agreed policy, the individuals were directed to make their application to the nearest asylum screening unit, which in this case was Croydon."

The spokesman said that the Home Office would not comment on whether or not the immigrants had arrived in Croydon.

Lansing Linde also said it did not want to comment on the incident.