The first asylum- seekers to be kept at Winchester Prison arrived this week.

The Victorian category B prison has been told to find room for 50 asylum-seekers as part of a national attempt to relieve pressure on immigration services.

Winchester MP, Mark Oaten, has attacked the move, labelling it "draconian" and his Tory rival, Andrew Hayes, blasted it as "inhumane".

A group of asylum-seekers arrived on Monday, with further batches, of between four and six, joining them throughout the week. Winchester's quota is part of roughly 500 who will be accommodated in prisons across the country.

A prison service statement described the arrangement as "ad hoc" and emphasised it was just a stop-gap measure.

Asylum-seekers sent to the city will have had their application turned down and be waiting to be deported or for the appeal process. They will be treated as of on remand, allowed to wear their own clothes and take advantage of recreational and educational facilities on offer.

Because there is no remand unit for women at the prison, all asylum-seekers sent here will be male. Average length of stay is not expected to be around six weeks.

It is not the first time asylum-seekers have been kept in the prison. Kurds fleeing persecution in Turkey and Iraq were also housed there in the early '90s.

A spokesman said they were anticipating "quite a mixture of people with different backgrounds". Already, there are asylum-seekers from Jamaica, China, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Albania on site.

The prison is legally obliged to cater for different ethnic groups, in terms of religion and food and representatives are also liaising with local immigration services, which are struggling to find interpreters.

Shirley Firth, of the Winchester Action Group for Asylum Seekers, has met with the prison governor and organised a visiting group. She believes prison is not the answer.

"Staff are doing their best, but can't treat them any better than ordinary prisoners and they don't deserve to be treated as prisoners. Prison is not the place to put people who are going to be removed."

Mark Oaten also feels prison is the wrong place."Winchester should be for prisoners and criminals. It is already under great pressure and the last things staff need is this additional burden.

"I also fear that what begins with a six-week stay will end up running into months. The solution is speedier processing of applications, not draconian measures."

Prospective Tory candidate, Andrew Hayes, cited the cost. "Taxpayers are being burdened with massive expense with the costs of housing each asylum-seeker easily outstripping the fees of Winchester College."

Both agreed the process needed to be speeded up. Mr Hayes added: "The only way to stop this sad situation whilst making sure that legitimate asylum-seekers get fair and speedy treatment is to ensure Britain is no longer regarded as a soft touch and that bogus applicants are speedily deported at minimum cost."

A spokesman said the arrangement could be over by the middle of the year. "The Government is undertaking an expansion of the detention estate, but this will not result in a substantial increase in spaces until mid-2001.

"The rising number of asylum seekers necessitates an immediate response and therefore the provision of ad hoc prison spaces is to be increased.

"This is a short-term expansion of an already existing arrangement only until the increased capacity in dedicated centres is available."