The British Home Office said ministers would review the footage aired on Wednesday, before deciding what action to take.

An undercover BBC reporter spent three months working at an asylum centre near Cambridge, eastern England, for failed asylum seekers waiting to be deported from Britain and caught on film several incidents of physical and racial abuse.

The documentary also showed staff at the centre boasting of the abuse and describing sexual relations with detainees.

Immigration will play a key role in Britain's election which is expected in May and the BBC allegations will embarrass Prime Minister Tony Blair's government.

Employees suspended

Fifteen employees of the Global Solutions Ltd (GSL) company, which provides the staff for four asylum centres in Britain, have been suspended pending an internal inquiry, the company said.

"I take any allegations of this nature extremely seriously," Immigration Minister Des Browne said.

"I have always made clear there is absolutely no place for racism anywhere in our society, and particularly within the immigration system.

"I will consider what further action may be appropriate once I am in possession of the full facts," he said.

A second BBC reporter spent three months working for GSL at Heathrow airport on a contract to transport asylum seekers.

Both reporters said most of the officers they met did try their best to treat detainees with dignity and respect. But there was a significant minority who made racist comments.

Ill-treatment

"I have done a few things. I have smacked them in their faces when nobody's looking and I have busted their noses," one staff member called Jay said.

Another member of staff at the Oakington Immigration Reception Centre said asylum seekers were no use to society.

"They are not even good in their own society and that's why they have come here to get it for free."

Mark Oaten, home affairs spokesman for the opposition Liberal Democrat party, said he was appalled by what the documentary showed.

"Frankly, it is absolutely appalling," Oaten said. "Some of the language and images are disgusting. It's quite clear that the staff involved were treating the asylum seekers as second class citizens.

"It's clear from some of the attitudes that there is a form of institutional racism operating there."